Monday, 27 April 2015

Address by Gregor Macaulay, Opoho Presbyterian Church, 26 April 2015

Yesterday was ANZAC Day.  It is a curious public holiday.  The date commemorates not the very first but the first major action in the Great War of 1914-1918 involving New Zealand soldiers. It is common for countries to celebrate the anniversaries of military triumphs, but Gallipoli was a military failure. 

The 25th of April was marked as a special day as early as 1916 and since then has had an interesting history.  It became a public holiday in the 1920s – to be considered “as sacred as a Sunday”.  It is now probably more sacred than a Sunday for most people.  Not even the garden centres that so selflessly open every Sunday and on Good Friday would dare to open on the morning of ANZAC Day.

At first, ANZAC Day was a day of commemoration of the men of New Zealand who had died while serving in the armed forces of the British Empire in the war against the German and Ottoman Empires and their allies.  After 1939 its ambit was extended to include those who died in the war against Hitler’s Germany and Japan.  And then there was Korea – and Malaya – and Vietnam – and more recent conflicts.  Its scope was extended backwards to include the South African War.  It has been a focus for aggressive pacifism from time to time.  And as the returned men of the First World War disappeared, and even those of the Second World War became fewer, it became a day of celebration of the living and of a woolly nationalism and half-baked historical analysis and sometimes mere sentimentality.

The proximity of ANZAC Day to Easter and ideas of sacrifice and the hope of resurrection would have been of deep significance to much of New Zealand’s population a century ago.  Today, I suggest, that vocabulary of ideas is a closed book to many, if not most, people; but as a nation we still look back. 

I am often puzzled about what it is that people think they are doing on ANZAC Day.  They are not mourning or recalling people they knew personally, at least not in the case of those who died in the First World War.  One cannot very usefully thank the dead.  As Protestants, we know it is pointless to pray for the dead.  I think it unlikely that everyone at a dawn service believes in God, so they are not thanking him.  I have seen a televised ANZAC service from the National War Memorial in Wellington, conducted by military chaplains, that was almost entirely secular – something that would not have been out of place in Soviet Russia or North Korea. 

So what are we doing today?  I will leave that question hanging for the moment.
Let’s move from the general to the particular.

We have in front of us the Opoho roll of honour, which normally hangs in the Morrison Lounge, and I have in my hand a little book about it that I have been working on sporadically for the last three or four years.  I got it finished just a couple of weeks ago.  Just in time.

The roll lists 80 men associated with Opoho who served in the armed forces of the British Empire in the Great War of 1914-1918 (now usually called the First World War or World War One). It also lists one woman, a nurse.  There are asterisks beside 15 names, indicating, we are told, that the men concerned had been killed in the war.

I thought it would be interesting, and a quick and easy job, to find out a little about these 15 men.  And then the trouble began.  First of all, one of the men hadn’t been killed at all – he survived the war and died in Christchurch in 1935.  His brother was killed.  Not all of them had been killed in battle: there was a death from pneumonia and a death from a bacterial infection (the soldier concerned hadn’t even left New Zealand and died at Featherston) – both conditions could probably have been easily treated if antibiotics had been available.  There was a death from scarlet fever. 

I looked further.  There were five other men who were not marked as having been killed but who had died while they were soldiers or whose deaths were treated as having been caused by the war.

One involved another death from pneumonia, following on from influenza; the soldier concerned was on Quarantine Island, where we have had church camps, but the disease for which he had been sent there was not influenza.  I will not spell out the details.  He is buried in the Northern Cemetery, just along the road.

And then I found that there were more than 30 men associated with Opoho who had served in the war but who were not listed on the roll.  There may well be others.  In some cases they were the brothers of men who were listed so it is puzzling that they were left off. And of these 30, seven had died on active service or as a result of active service.

The nurse on the roll was Mary Watson Anderson, born 1879, the fourth child in a family of 7 boys and 5 girls.  She trained at Dunedin Hospital and qualified as a nurse in 1913.  She stood 5 feet and half an inch tall, weighed 95 pounds, and had blue eyes, brown hair, and a complexion described variously as fair and ruddy.  She served in Egypt and England from August 1915 to February 1920 and was promoted to Sister in 1917.  According to her service record, she died in Nelson in 1949, but I haven’t found confirmation of that date in the Nelson cemetery records or the indexes of births, deaths, and marriages.

And what of the men?  The overwhelming impression of the men who are named on the roll, or who should have been listed, is that they were ordinary. Ordinary men in ordinary jobs, mainly labouring or trades.  No-one famous.  Mainly Presbyterian, or at least Protestant, with very few Roman Catholics.  All but two were in the New Zealand army – one was in the Australian forces, and one in the British Army and then the Royal Naval Reserve. Only two were officers.  The rest were privates or NCOs.  There were only a couple of gallantry awards – a Distinguished Conduct Medal and a Military Medal.  No VCs.  There were several sets of brothers and cousins.  Most were single.  A few had lost one parent, and I have noticed only one whose parents were living apart. As was usual for the time, very few would have been educated beyond primary school level.  They were ordinary men.

Their surnames indicate that they were all of British or Irish descent.  A few were born in the United Kingdom or Australia, but most were of the first generation or at most the second generation to have been born in this country.

Their Christian names are mainly fairly conventional names of their generation.  No-one called Josh or Zac or Liam.  But 17 called John, 11 called James, 11 Williams. There are Leonards, Fredericks, Alberts, Alfreds, Georges, Sidneys, and Harolds and Henrys, a Cyril, and a Ferdinand Horatio.

I haven’t analysed the ages of all who enlisted, but the range of ages of those who died during the war was 18 to 37, with an average age at death of 24.  They were young men.

I also have not analysed their medical reports properly, but most appear to have been very ordinary in terms of height and build.  George Gladstone Russell, killed at Gallipoli in August 1915 was an exception.  He was over 6’ 3”: 6’ 4” according to a newspaper report of his death; 6’ 3¼” according to his service record; his nickname was Tiny.  The newspaper report described him as “a fine specimen of New Zealand manhood”.

They were not all heroes or saints: George Russell had been sacked from the Railways in 1913 and two other men were discharged from the army after being convicted of offences, one by court martial and one in a civil court in Australia.

These ordinary men from Opoho served at Gallipoli and in Palestine and on the Western Front and some are buried in Turkey and Israel and France.

But the first Opoho boy to die in the war was buried at sea.  William Harvey, an apprentice piano tuner from 38 Warden Street, died of tuberculosis on board ship on 16 April 1915. He was 21.  He was an Anglican.

The next to die was a Roman Catholic.  Frank Pearson, an anxious-looking 18-year-old who had worked as an electrician for the Dunedin City Corporation, was killed at Gallipoli on 28 April 1915 – a hundred years ago on Tuesday.  He has no known grave, but his name is on the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli.  His parents lived in Signal Hill Road, just up from McGregor Street.  At enlistment he had claimed to be 16 months older than he actually was.

Another soldier, John Williams, had bumped his age up by more than two years when he enlisted in May 1915.  He had also used an assumed name, Jack Mackenzie.  It was just a month after his 19th birthday when he was killed at the Somme in July 1916.

And towards the end of the Gallipoli campaign, on 8 November 1915, Sapper Cyril Fancourt was killed in action.  He is buried in the Embarkation Pier Cemetery in Turkey.  His parents lived next door to us, at 5 Farquharson Street.  Cyril was a plumber.  He had married Nellie Taylor (8 years his senior) at the North East Valley Presbyterian Church on 8 May 1915 and enlisted 8 days later.  He sailed from Wellington on 14 August 1915 and was dead less than three months later.  He was 22.  Nellie later married a returned soldier, Harold McMaster, and lived in Musselburgh, and later in Melville Street.  She died in 1927, aged 41.

And similar brief biographies are easily deduced from the service records of all the others listed on the roll, or who should have been listed on the roll.  Their records are available online from Archives New Zealand.  You can easily look them up for yourselves.

So what are we to make of their stories?  These stories of ordinary people caught up in a war of unprecedented scale and carnage.

The First World War was the result of militarism, nationalism, alliances, fanaticism, and folly, but New Zealand entered the war enthusiastically.  And 3 men from Farquharson Street, and 5 men from Signal Hill Road, and 6 men from Warden Street died as a result.  

And here at Opoho we have particular cause to remember that Germany also entered the war enthusiastically and lost many of its young men.

The First World War was seen as a just war by intelligent and humane people in Britain and in New Zealand.  It was called the Great War for Civilisation on the Victory Medal awarded to those who served in it.  It was called the war to end war.  But it also led directly to the horrors of totalitarianism in Russia and Germany and to another world war a generation later.  And we are still living with the consequences of the First World War in the Middle East.

So what are we doing today?  And what are we to make of the stories of the people named on the roll of honour?

I don’t think there is a single, simple answer.  There are not necessarily profound conclusions to be drawn from historical events.  Things happen.  People live and die. It is not always clear who is a goody and who is a baddy.  Historical events and anniversaries can be remembered or interpreted in different ways by different people.  But every person is part of a family, a community, and a country, and today I suggest we simply recall before God those people associated with Opoho – the soldiers, the nurse, and their families – who took part in or who were otherwise affected by the First World War, a war that helped to shape the world we live in today.  Their stories are part of our stories, as nation, church, community, families, and individuals.

And in this place we also recall that we are part of a much older and a much bigger story – a story of deliverance and hope.  I read from Isaiah chapter 51:

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
and who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
2 look to Abraham, your father,
and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was only one man,
and I blessed him and made him many.
3 The Lord will surely comfort Zion
and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden,
her wastelands like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the sound of singing.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 19th April Easter 3

Readings: Acts 3:12-19, Luke 24:36b-48
Let us pray: May the words spoken and heard be to your glory O God. May we listen in hope and may we respond in faith to all that you invite us into – in Jesus name. Amen.
We are drawn in by the act and convicted by the Word.
When it comes to the part of the service where we listen to the readings, the word of scripture – I wonder how convicting it is for you. I have had several people say that they find it hard to listen to the readings closely, or they connect to one part and find no room to for the rest – and it was somewhere in the rest that the preacher was going to be concentrating on. Sometimes the readings are too well known and they just slide over us, other times the wording seems clumsy or pedantic, the translation meaningless or simply ever so boring. You can get hung up on a word or phrase that inspires or irritates or puzzles and you can most certainly forget what the first one was about when you listen to the second. Just as well we don’t read all four set down for us in the lectionary.
At synod this week, Assembly Moderator Andrew Norton challenged us to find ways to listen to scripture, to avoid it being a process or a function only, and to find a way to enter into it body and soul. If we simply read it or hear it as prose (defined as ordinary or matter of fact or unimaginative - prosaic) – a linear journey from a – b – then it’s very easy to slip off to other imaginings that are nothing to do with the purpose of the writings. But, says Andrew, if we can find the poetry in the writings instead– and there is much of it to find – then we have much more chance of scripture speaking to us in multiple levels and ways of meaning. In poetry you see we engage our heart rather more than our head, and we can listen, deeply listen to what God’s Word might be saying to us. Stop reading the bible as a textbook, says Andrew, and start reading it as poetry that God invites you into and to experience first with your heart and then with your mind. Become part of the poem, the poem that God has created us to be.
However much that makes sense to you or not, the commonality of Andrew’ passion for us to know the Word of God and that of Simon Peter’s all those years ago is on the same page as they say. They are both determined that we would understand the importance of the teachings of Jesus, that we would be directly and individually convicted by the Word of God in a way that would speak directly to our hearts – and sometimes poetry does that more effectively than prose. Why is this so important, to be convicted by scripture – to answer this we need to hear what has happened before Peters sermon.

Today’s reading from Acts is set chronologically after the events of Pentecost – which is still weeks away in our church calendar. Luke tells us that this is the second sermon that Peter delivered – the first followed on from the spectacular events of the coming of the Holy Spirit among them – the flames, the wind, the multitudinous voices. Before this sermon, there is also a spectacular incident – the healing of the crippled man at the door of the temple: Peter and John were heading up to the temple for prayer – a man lame from birth was being carried in to collect alms, Peter and John, having no silver or gold, offered him healing instead – ‘stand up and walk’. And he leapt up and began to walk and leap and praise God. And the people were filled with wonder and amazement. 1

So we have two mighty sermons, each preceded by mighty acts of God. After the sermons, Peter preaching the teachings of Jesus, 3000 were baptized at Pentecost and 5000 in the temple. In both cases the crowds were drawn in by the act and convicted by the word
In the sermon, Peter talks powerfully of the mistakes people made in not recognising Jesus as the Messiah - and he then speaks of the healing grace of God for those who repent, who recognise their error and seek forgiveness.

Peter generously suggests it is mostly through ignorance rather than wilful disobedience that people got it so wrong but still he doesn’t hold back on his incredulity that it should be so: You who put him to death, you who failed to recognise the Messiah, you who are supposed to know the scriptures, recognise the signs, remember the prophesies! You have put to death the author of life! And you should have known better.
We have to remember that Peter was speaking almost exclusively here to the Hebrew peoples. Peter was a Jew in a Jewish city speaking to Jews about a Jew. There was a whole bunch of common ground/learning/understanding – the difference was that, for most, they had not been convicted by the teachings and so hadn’t recognised the moment of revelation.
Hence the need for the spectacular presence of God in the world – to get their attention, so that they could again have a chance to hear the word and repent.

You see, curiosity is one of the most effective means of drawing a crowd. I was driving back from Waikouaiti on Tuesday afternoon, just minutes behind the truck whose brakes failed, the one that slid down on its side into the gardens fence. Diverted away from the scene, I was still craning my head to see what was going on, drawn as a moth to a flame, curious and horrified at what might be. And when there are rumours of something out of the ordinary – oh yes, our curiosity encourages us to gather! Some years ago I well remember a warning issued of a tsunami for the eastern coast line and some school parties being taken down to Kaka Point beach to watch. We are not all that silly but it’s tempting to want to be part of the unusual, the unexpected, the inexplicable.

The man who had been crippled for years was suddenly healed – the news spread rapidly. These two men seemed to be responsible – astonishing news, puzzling even and the crowds gathered – curious, abuzz.
What might they have expected when they arrived – another miracle or show of spiritual power - but they didn’t get what they expected – they got a sermon instead.
As Thomas Long says: “They came drawn as moths to the ultra violet glow of miracle, and what they got was the clear, steady light of a homily.”2
For Peter realised that if we stay only with the miracle and not hear the word of explanation, they would be susceptible to several serious misconceptions.
First of all that we might think that any form of human disability is a place of incompleteness, of lack of wholeness and that you needed faith for marvels sake – for the reward of physical healing. This understanding demeans the wholeness value of many whom God loves as they are but society deems less than whole.

Another misconception was that the crowd thought the healing came from Peter and John. We want to believe that people have somehow tapped into some new way of bringing wholeness and healing and we want a part of it. Self help gurus, fads for healing our inner souls and outward bodies, where if you spend enough or believe enough or keep looking long enough there will be an answer. You’ve got it wrong says Peter. It was never our power, our spirituality, our piety, our clever wisdom that healed this man. It was God – the power and grace of the risen Christ healed this man and heals us in ways we can’t imagine or control.

A third misconception needing the teaching of Jesus to explain – the nature of life with God is not about thinking that brokenness is the rule and wholeness the astounding exception. Out of this thinking comes the belief that the love of God is selective and only shown in the odd astonishing interruption to the dreary business of life as usual. It is an easy step from there to the belief that God does not care. But, says Peter, we know a God who offers wholeness and forgiveness and healing every day of our lives, who delights in every moment of love and compassion, who lives with us in an Easter world, where new life banishes darkness and hope is anchored in the presence of Christ in this world.

We hear from Luke: Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. How do we engage with, step into scripture in a meaningful, experiential way so that we actually ‘get’ the teachings of Jesus? For we need the word to understand and interpret the spectacular, the teachings of Jesus to guide our faith journeys in a loving and merciful way, the community engaging together with the word to avoid the pitfalls of individual arrogance and misconception. Otherwise we run the risk of getting caught up in the spectacular only and forgetting the risen Christ who is with us in the day to day, the ordinary. We are a people who have heard the miraculous story of Easter, let us know hear how we are to be witnesses to the teachings of Jesus here in this place by allowing scripture to speak into our very hearts and where the poetry of the living God shapes and forms us to live a full and abundant life of faith, every day and in every way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Margaret Garland

1 Acts 3:1-11 Peter Heals a Crippled Beggar

2 Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 2 p.408

Monday, 13 April 2015

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 12th April 2015 Easter 2

Readings:  Acts 4:32-35,  John 20: 19-31

We pray:  May we hear your word in our hearts and our lives O God, may we be challenged, assured and encouraged in our faith,  just as we are now and who you call us to be.  In Jesus name. Amen. 

We’d not been expecting him … and yet, we had.  We were frightened, because he had been killed by the authorities -  and they might be looking for us.  Then, when some of the women said that they had seen him, we were more frightened than ever.  We had denied him, abandoned him, watched him die at a distance, and kept quiet about our previous association.  He had come and showed himself to us as the risen Christ once already – that’s what Thomas had missed out on – but here we were again, sitting, huddled in an upstairs room, locked away from the world, afraid of ‘them’, afraid of him, sitting silently with the snib down.  What would he do with us now?  But he came and unlocked every door with his unexpected words, ‘Peace … Peace be with you.  I am sending you … out.  And then he breathed the Holy Spirit on us.....

The peace of Christ, a peace achieved in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is an unexpected peace, and unexpected gift to the frightened disciples behind the locked door.
It is not the peace that the world knows – an absence of conflict, a shutting oneself into a place of safety, a peacekeeping role from a distance. 
It was not a peace that the disciples were particularly seeking –they were frightened, uncertain, hidden away from the turmoil and chaos.
But peace was what the risen Jesus offered them.

What was this peace that Jesus gifted to those frightened disciples?

The peace of the resurrected Jesus is a peace that breathes the holy spirit into our lives, that assures us of God’s presence, that empowers us to participate in Christ’s victory over death.  In the reading from Acts we hear of how that peace of Jesus can change lives, of how the community of believers were living out their lives in care for each other, that no one had more than was needed and neither did anyone have less than needed. A community of Christ indeed.   For we hear that a great grace was upon them all’ in the power of the risen Christ.  That grace, that peace, enabled an otherwise diverse band of believers to live in a community together in peace, a community where no one was needy, where oneness in Christ was found and celebrated, where each was valued and cared for.  Where the overwhelming sense of purpose, mission and values was that found in the peace and unity of Christ.  Almost unbelievable you might say – Jesus would say – believe it – this is what happens when you make Christ the centre, peace the focus and grace the gift of the everyday.

Every Sunday we share the peace of Christ with each other – it’s a special time full of chatter and greeting and welcoming, deeply embedded with a sense of being the people of Christ here in this place.  But, says Jesus, I now want you to take that peace – out – out to the lonely Matthews, the doubting Thomas’, the frightened Peters, the worried Marthas. 
For Christ’s peace is not a peace that is to be celebrated, believed in, lived into only behind the closed doors of a upper room, of a church, of a faith community.  Jesus makes that abundantly clear.  That one little three lettered word ‘out’.  Peace be with you, I am sending you out.....

This peace of Christ is not one of staying safely here with the door shutting out the demands of the world, much as we would sometimes like it to be.  Christ takes our private and personal faith, the healing and wholeness that we experience here in this time of worship out from behind the door, propels us into engagement with what is outside.  It changes our status, breathes new life into us, and forces us outside into a world of needy people and situations.  For without going ‘out’, what price Christ’s victory over death, what price Thomas’ courage and tenacity, what price the fear of following and the wonder that we do so anyway – for Christ walks with us.

Let’s talk a bit about Thomas – one of my favourites.
Why oh why do we single out Thomas for his doubting? The term ‘a doubting Thomas’ is well embedded in our language. It is almost as if we are expected to believe that the rest of the disciples had worked it out and he had to catch up, his unbelief was somehow to be tolerated because that was just Thomas. 
Um what were the rest of the disciples doing when Jesus came through the locked door?  Hiding, frightened, worried, doubting and alone – and this is despite the fact that they all but Thomas had encountered the risen Christ just a week before!  They were back in panic mode, hiding, feeling safe, they thought, behind closed doors. 

And what does Jesus do – the Easter story tells us he comes to them again – and again and again.  No words of condemnation, no chastising them for their lack of faith.  Jesus comes again and again to confused and frightened disciples, he offers them again the gift of his presence and his peace – and to Thomas he gently and completely offers what ever it is that he needs to believe.  Jesus offers himself to those who want to see again and again.
This is the good news of the second Sunday of Easter and no doubt of the third and the fourth – however long it takes for us to open that door and step out to engage and entangle our lives of faith with the need for grace and peace in a troubled world. 
And we remember that there are times when we need to bolt back inside, when we do a Thomas and ask for a bit more proof, be as the disciples hiding behind a locked door, for that is the reality of a life of faith. 
It is interesting how much more I can relate to this band of quivering disciples rather that the community spoken of in Acts.  This is much more my story, I would have to say.  I understand that the early community of Jerusalem is what can be when the grace and peace of Christ is embraced but the reality is that we stuff up, we experience fear and despair, we doubt and we question and we shut God out – we are a people who will not all suddenly have a eureka moment and never look back – that is not who we are.  We journey in the very real ups and downs of life and faith, we all have a bit of Thomas, a taste for the locked door in us at times.
Here is a way to think of Thomas – I have heard him  described at the incredulous non believer who hides inside every believing Christian, the questioner in us who resists the easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always wants to dig a bit deeper, get more proof, encounter the living Christ again and again.
This is the resurrection story, the Easter gospel that we celebrate again and again – to realise that within all doubts and fears, uncertainties and lost directions, Jesus will be standing there in front of us gifting us his peace for as often and as long as we need it.  And here’s a thing - as our fear increases so his grace increases, till there is no place to go but out that door and into the world. 

He’s touched us, talked to us, met us on the road, eaten with us and even cooked breakfast for us on an open fire.  But he’s going soon.  And he leaves us his peace, that we can be assured of his presence, full of grace and mercy for his work is finished and ours can begin.  In the name of the risen Christ.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 5th April Easter Sunday

We pray:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen.
As we joined in the walk of the cross along the Valley on Friday, it was obvious that, for some people, we were simply a nuisance.  For cars trying to go where we were walking, for people out for a quiet stroll in the gardens, for those who had to be somewhere and we were in the way.  Was Jesus simply a nuisance for some people?  An irritating burr that interfered with well laid plans, busyness, the sense of what should be!

Also on that walk I did notice some people looking almost bemused - as if aliens had landed.  There were some faces that best could be described as unbelieving, ‘is this for real?’ kind of faces, others who were awkward around this display of emotion in public.  Was Jesus beyond credibility for some people?  Was his message so out there that he really couldn’t be for real – was he unbelievable?

And then there were the ones on the edges – the ones who looked like they wouldn’t have minded joining but what would their mates say, what if they got sucked in again or maybe they were standing there remembering but not quite able to make the move, too much got in the way.  Was Jesus a temptation for some people, a pull and a push, a desire yet a reluctance? Some one who obviously had something important to offer but it sounded dangerous or scary for all kinds of reasons?

And finally the people who were part of the walk.  Old and young, different ethnicities, romping and plodding along, chatting and silent, confident and a bit self conscious, all one in this moment of Good Friday.  Was Jesus one who drew people, all shapes and sizes, into one body – a huge melting pot of those who responded, each in their own way, to the invitation of the living God to walk the way of the Christ

 All of the above – Jesus was a nuisance, and an embarrassment , a tempting beacon of hope and, for some, the source of all life and love.  All of the above.

Throughout his life and at his death, in his teachings and acts of compassion, in his challenges to established order and commitment to new ways, from the people shouting hosanna on Palm Sunday to the people calling for his execution -  Jesus demanded a response. 

On Palm Sunday I talked about the people on the margins, some of their responses to the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem that final time.  Today we continue with our responses to the rest of the Easter narrative.
Certainly Jesus can be seen as having serious nuisance value.  He gets in the way of all the best laid plans, he disrupts directions and turns self imposed schedules into chaos.  He was nuisance to the religious and political authorities, to the crowds who shouted ‘crucify’!  He didn’t fit ideas of what should be, all the carefully laid plans of who the Messiah was and how they would appear and behave.  He didn’t fit the mould. He was a nuisance.
And Jesus can be a nuisance in our lives.  We too can have our ideas all laid out, shape Jesus to our expectations and plans, get irritated when God calls us stop and be still, to listen, to experience a new way.  And it is when we can only see Jesus as a nuisance that we miss the opportunity to be part of spectacular, life changing moments of faith.   I wonder if there was a touch, the barest hint of the nuisance in the empty tomb for the disciples?

Certainly Jesus is unbelievable – in our sense of the word today.  Unbelievable that he would enter Jerusalem like that, let alone that he would go almost meekly to the cross.  That he wouldn’t fight for his innocence, that on the cross he spoke not words of hate or anger or judgement but rather seven words of love. Unbelievable that there was an empty tomb, that there were encounters with the living Christ....and the list goes on. 
I wonder if we hold back on our belief sometimes – if there are times when we allow the disbelief of the world to speak too strongly into our lives.  And I am not talking about a need to believe literally all that is written in the bible – I am talking about the wonder and profound truth of the Gospel that we each of us know deep in our hearts and the fact that Jesus Christ is a fundamental and essential part of our lives.  It can be that we sometimes allow the cynicism and egocentric ways of the world to give that belief a battering.  And sometimes it almost breaks our belief in the living Christ.  But it doesn’t break God or God’s love for us.   Nor does it diminish God’s love for those who stand there watching saying ‘get real’!  The empty tomb tells us that, if nothing else.

Jesus Christ is a temptation for many - people who might have in some way encountered his teachings, felt the pull of his love, his mercy and compassion - and yet can’t quite bring themselves to respond, to dive headlong into that body of faith that seems to walk so confidently and meaningfully the way of Christ.  Too much history and hurt, too vulnerable to open oneself to others, too busy, just too hard to respond to the invitation of Jesus to follow.  So many reasons why they feel they need to continue on the outer despite the need, the pull to belong.
If only they knew – Peter, he who had been named the rock, the beginning of the church, skulking around the fire denying that he knew Jesus, disciples who had spent three years with this man and didn’t pick up on the repeated promise of resurrection, we with our doubts and frailties, our hopes and our regrets and our denials and failed understandings.
If we ever manage to give the impression of perfection, God forgive us.  If we ever fail to engage with the world we live in or judge others for their failure to engage with us, God forgive us.  If we ever forget to celebrate the joy of Christ risen and in our lives, God forgive us.  And if we ever exclude anyone who responds to the call to follow, may God forgive us.
Jesus died not so that we could hold him exclusively ours but so that the whole world would know him.  Jesus lives again so that we can continue to invite people to enter into his presence and to follow -  the disbelievers, the cynics, those on the margins and those who are part of faith communities – and we do this best with the living Christ at our centre, by gathering as a people of faith around the table where all are welcome, by engaging with love and compassion in the world , by being a welcoming, non-judgemental, inclusive community of faith.
It is for this that Jesus died, and it is for this that Jesus lives again.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 29th March 2015 Palm Sunday

Readings:  Psalm 118, Mark 11:1-11

It has been said that the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week has all the elements of a superb piece of ‘street theatre’ –carefully planned and implemented,  well orchestrated  and  as subversive as you can get.  A rich mix of comical parody of the powers that be and deep truth offered through sideswiping established expectations.
Likening it to a military campaign would not be amiss – strategy, provisioning, show of force– but with a major difference – Jesus came to bring peace, not war.

He came riding a donkey – a sign of peaceful intention.
He came – challenging the established powers and ways
He came – offering an alternative to servile fear and violence
He came – dramatically, hopefully, determinedly to bring a new way of being to the world – a love that cannot be broken, even by humiliation and death.  
It was one of the most intentionally confrontational and explosive acts of Jesus’ ministry, was it not?

I think we make a mistake when we see Jesus entry into Jerusalem only as something to be got through, that the pain and humiliation and suffering were somehow inescapable sacrifices to be offered to redress the balance of relationship between human beings and God. 
I reckon that Jesus genuinely came to give it a go, to see if the people, the powers, the priests might just get that there was a better path, a different way to live and to know God. 
We know the result.  The political and priestly powers didn’t get it – at all.  And they treated this beautiful man as a piece of threatening baggage – and crucified him on a cross. 

But what about the people – and this to me is the most intriguing aspect of the day and the event – what about the people – how did they view the acclamation for this man, this prophet – how did they respond to the call to follow a new way, to believe a different and startling truth. 
What were the powers that got in the way – for them and for us?  We know what happened then – but we need to ask - what is it that is getting in the way, continuing to drive Jesus to the inevitability of the cross?  This is worth exploring at the beginning of Holy Week I think?  And to do this I want us to hear some voices.

On the day the Prophet rode into town, business woman Julia was in the middle of closing an important deal.  She was drawn to the shouting, always keen to know what was happening in her vibrant city.  But there was so much riding on this deal – they would think her an easy target if she backed off now – no she would hear about it later anyway. It wouldn’t be quite the same as being there – but priorities, priorities……

It was shopping day for Peter and Clare – when you don’t have much money you have to spend time looking for the bargains so you can put food on the table for the family.  Just a moment to look out through the glass frontage – it looks amazing – you can see from their perplexed faces that they have almost forgotten what it was like to have that exuberant joy?  It’s been a long time – each time they begin to think they are getting somewhere, something else goes wrong, more bad luck, or there is another paper to fill in, another rejection……no time for joy!

Harry thought the procession sounded like fun – from his room anyway.  But he daren’t go join – every time he went out onto the street he would get hassled, laughed at, jostled till he just had to get away.  He knew he was different – he’d been called ‘not the full quid’ often enough – and that was the polite version.  But why wasn’t he allowed to join in, why wasn’t he welcome – because he had this funny feeling that he sometimes got – something important was going on here, something he needed to hear and be part of – but they’d never let him close – so why bother.

Then there was Martha – bit of an old fashioned name these days – she simply didn’t have time.  They went past her house – but she didn’t look up.  Too much to do.  House to be cleaned, meals to be cooked, flowers to be arranged, beds to be made – she didn’t have time for anything new.  And anyway, she didn’t trust any of these ‘popular’ things – anyway her entire life had been spent earning respect by what she had done, not what she might have imagined she could do….

What a load of absolute and complete twaddle.  You could almost see the words breathed out on Hugh’s snort of derision – actually it was a fairly alchohol laden snort but what difference did that make? Heard some of slogans as I tried to get through to the pub!  You get where you are by your own efforts, not by handouts.  Work hard and play hard, look out for number one and you’ll be right.  Future will take care of itself – cause I deserve all that I can get now.  Compassion, equality, love for others – what a load of ….actually I don’t think I should use that word in church…?

Janice was a bit of cynic – only what you can prove, taste, smell, touch – the material things.  Everything and everyone else had let her down.  Talk of love had proved cheap and hurtful.  Friends and family disappeared at the first sign of trouble, and - let’s face it - she did have a bit of a ‘difficult’ side.  Promises dissolved in thin air, hope was a foolish dream, dreams a waste of space, life something to be got through really.  But there was something about this man – despite herself she was drawn, something compelling, something warm almost about him – she had got close – didn’t mean to but the crowd seemed to let her through – and there was something about him….

I invite you to spend some time thinking and praying on how these we might respond to these powers of hurt and cynicism and poverty and diminishing that are so prevalent in our society – and later I invite you to bring those thoughts forward as we pray for the others and ourselves.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 15th March 2015 Lent 4

Readings:  John 3:14-21,  Numbers 21:4-9

We pray:  God of mystery and promise – we listen to your word to us today in the knowledge of your grace and through faith in your son Jesus the Christ.  May our hearts and minds be open to you that we might grow in wisdom, faith and understanding – in Jesus name.  Amen. 

Today we are faced with two passages of scripture that , for me, appear to raise troubling understandings of God and faith.  Even my attempt at Wednesday night Worship to step further into the Gospel passage didn’t shed any particularly helpful light on it.
The reading from Numbers is clearly part of the lectionary for its reference to the snake on the pole that Moses raised on God’s command to save the people from an infestation of deadly snakes and it has obvious connections with the raising of the cross, the new life that God brings to the people.  It is an interesting passage in its own right  - the fifth episode of what is politely called ‘the murmuring stories’ where each time the people of the Exodus complained hugely, walked away from God, were dealt with by God and only through the interceding of Moses, were they offered reconciliation and redemption again.  Worthy of further discussion and expansion, especially with the raising of idolatrous image – but it is with the Gospel lesson today that I would like to spend some time. 

For it contains one of the most loved and known sayings of Jesus – John 3:16 – ‘ For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.’ 
But this troubles me - is it not contradictory?  On one hand God so loved the world, on the other only those who have the opportunity to believe will know eternal life.  Does the good news proclaim God’s gracious love for the world, or is God’s love reserved for those who have faith.  Does it come down to Grace or faith? Which is it?  

The answer is, I believe, that of the relationship known as both/and. Faith and Grace, gift and response.
And, if that relationship is out of kilter, or there is no relationship at all, we can end up way off track. 
As Joseph Small warns: When it comes to the gift of salvation, if we focus only on God’s grace we are in danger of making salvation an arbitrary act - with no essential need for human response.  Bonhoeffer talks about ‘cheap grace’ where we accept the blessing and don’t believe anything is needed in return.  If we say that salvation is by faith alone then we are in danger of making this a human accomplishment, with God’s role only as the bringer of possibility.  And too - faith without grace can become confused with belief – reduced to mental assent to a propositional truth – and once you have that you need no more.
Both/And.  What does that look like?  It’s all about prepositions folks.  By grace, through faith.  By grace we come to faith.  Through faith we activate God’s grace.  Both/And. 

Throughout scripture the relationship between God’s grace and human faith is one of mutual interaction – hear the story of the people of the Exodus as they challenged grace and recovered faith – and of the people now as we struggle to maintain the faith in the face of difficulties and how sometimes only that knowledge that God loves us keeps us from going over the edge.  But hear too the love that God bears us is not without cost – that it does not remove from us the pain and the suffering – in fact it asks of us, nay demands of us, a response and an involvement in that very life of faith that intentionally engages with pain and suffering – that walks towards the cross with Christ. 

And just in case we think that we have got this grace/faith thing sorted – it’s a relationship – up and down, gift and response, close and fractious–  I believe if we are really going to hear God speaking in the Gospel passage today,  we need to take this understanding of grace and faith into  another realm of possibility. 
And that is that there is, in each, a mystery of singularity that offers grace where faith (or our idea of faith) might not ever be known and faith where grace has yet to be named.  God’s relationship with humankind is not to be confined to our idea of  relationship, for example a quid pro quo one   – for if there is one thing we know about following in the way of Jesus, it is that every time we get things neatly piled into boxes he comes along and demolishes them – with gusto.  So the idea that we can only know God and God only know us in that relationship of grace and faith is not the whole story – it is our story but not the whole story.

Actually the Wednesday Worship discussion did help – we were reading the last part of the Gospel passage – about light and darkness – when one person shared the image that created for them – of being on a stage and people weaving in and out of the Christ light – almost a dance of life through the many hues of our living where the light permeates the darkness and no-one is every really separated entirely from either. For me it was an image for all of humankind – powerful and prophetic - and one that continued to speak to me over time.  My continuing thoughts took me to an understanding that, whilst some might never name the light, they were drawn to it, part of the grace that fed into and from that light, and while people of faith some might believe that they were always in the light and it was exclusively theirs,  and they had some say in where it might shine or not, the light had in fact become quite dim in their lives.   You can see where I am going with this I hope. 

We don’t have the formulae for salvation pinned down – we do not have the right to exclude, to judge, to condemn – in our humanity we have to recognise that God’s love for the world is beyond our understanding and our possibilities - and that God’s love and grace for the world is not extinguished by the darkness and can never be limited by our doctrines or exclusiveness.  

That God so loved the world......throughout scripture, throughout history, throughout the church in the world and the people of the world, there is no condition that we can put on the saving grace of God – we can only respond to it through faith and in love share that grace with a world so that the light, whom we name as Jesus the Christ, can reach all corners of the world, in every place where the darkness holds sway.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only son ....  Amen

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 8th March 2015 Lent 3

‘A House of Prayer for all Nations’
Readings:  1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2: 13-22

Narrator:                      My house.....
A:                                My grandfather helped build it.
B:                                My mother sat here
C:                                She and Dad were married here
D:                                She loved her church, she did
E:                                 Came here every Sunday till she died
F:                                 Do you remember when we had those chairs made....
Narrator:                      My house shall be called....
A:                                A great part of Opoho history
B:                                Always loved that stained glass window
C:                                Some where to come and get your batteries charged
Narrator:                      My house shall be called a house of prayer.
A:                                Great for weddings and funerals and reunions
B:                                Why can’t we sing the hymns I know – to the right tunes!
C:                                Important to come at Christmas and Easter of course – that is probably enough
D:                                Its good for the children – and for us to see them here
E:                                 We need to keep our church open –you never know when you might need it
F:                                 Tradition is the best way – change is too unsettling
Narrator:                      My house shall be called a house of prayer for.....
D:                                Members
E:                                 Sundays
F:                                 When I need something....
Narrator:                      My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
A                                 But we don’t want the charismatics or the evangelicals or the pentecostals or the born agains.... (doubtfully) do we?
B:                                (brightly) open every Sunday morning from 10-12
C:                                (questioning) You want to come pray and sit quiet when you need? Anytime?
Narrator:                      ...for all nations
D:                                People from other countries and cultures are most welcome
E:                                 but they’ll need to speak English and fit in of course
F:                                 (reflectively) probably easiest for everyone if they do their own thing....
Narrator:                      My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
A:                                I know they are the same – but they’re so different
B:                                Ecumenism is all good – but once a year, no more
C:                                and you’ll understand if we don’t go to theirs....
D:                                So what if our money is invested in deep sea drilling – it’s the best return...
E:                                 and we need the money for the roof, and new sound system – and the minister
F:                                 We are an inclusive loving congregation who value all people – great statement of purpose – took us ages to get the words right....
Narrator:                      Jesus went to the Temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling there.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the stools of those who sold pigeons and said to them: ‘It is written in scripture that God said: “My temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” But you are making it a hideout for thieves.’
Adapted from Stages on the Way: a Wild Goose Resource Book  p.85

Do you think we might have, in that dialogue, touched on some of the tables that need overturning in the church today?
Was it a bit hard hitting at times, did the odd one kind of resonate, or you might have listened closely saying ‘unfair, not relevant here’.  However we responded, I believe that John in this gospel passage is leading us into a big question, a repeated question:  What does it mean to be the church of Jesus?  Or perhaps it is the mirror question:  What is it that we do that stops our church being the house of prayer for all nations? 
Some background:  the temple was huge – still being rebuilt and expanded in Jesus day.  The money changing etc was presumably happening in the court of the Gentiles – outside the inner sanctums where only Jews could go and taking over the only place the Gentiles could gather.  To all intents and purposes the temple was fulfilling its purpose – sacrificial animals without blemish, no use of roman coinage for the temple tax, meeting the needs of the pilgrims and honouring God.  But not in the eyes of Jesus – for him what was happening was profaning the temple, debasing worship and substituting ritual for devotion. 
And Jesus reacts in the way of all Prophets, the speakers for God, by a dramatic ‘not to be forgotten’ act of anger and barely leashed violence.  It is interesting that it is only in the Gospel of John that we have this event so early in Jesus teaching – establishing his credentials, we might say, for his ministry as the voice and very presence of God.

What got him so upset?  Well we could pinpoint a few things. 
That those who had made a career of studying the Word of God lost touch with what God was asking of them.  They were detached from the reality of what was going on, or perhaps didn’t care that it had taken on a life of its own.  For this market wasn’t begun with evil intent nor was it a cynical attempt to profit from thievery.  No this ‘den of thieves’ had crept in subtly and over time, and initially was there to fulfil the goals and purpose of the institution.   The concept of providing appropriate sacrifices for pilgrims to purchase was helpful and well intentioned in the beginning, sanctioned to enable worship and right devotion for the pilgrims.  Then it somehow morphed into this corrupt market that fleeced the unwary and the priests did nothing about it!  Blind eye or convenient – who knows?
But alongside anger at those who had promised to serve and honour God, there was anger too that in their failure to serve God, they had failed to serve well the vulnerable, the innocent, the seeking who were being ripped off.  Gentiles with no place to go and pray, the potential for corruption and deception within and on the part of the traders, exploitation of the pilgrims, consumerism the path to righteousness – all were happening under the noses of the priests – and they did nothing.

Lets take those one by one and consider them for us.
Gentiles with no place to go – where is it that we say that some people are less important than others?  That their right to worship, to know God, to be part of community is negotiable extra, not a given.  To understand the power this has to deeply hurt and diminish us, I reckon that is really important for us all to have had some experience, and recognise it as such, of being in a minority, not catered for,  being treated as superfluous or surplus to demand.  Being a Christian perhaps?

The potential for corruption and deception within and on the part of the traders.  It is our role as Christ’s body to be vigilant and aware of anything that we do or enable that has the potential to lead people astray.  It is as simple as that.  Whether it be words, actions or lack of either, whether 6 degrees removed or right in our back yard, we are accountable for the choices we make, who we are as the disciples of Christ.  We won’t get it right all the time but by being aware, we can seek to make right that which we got wrong and to speak out clearly into situations that cause concern.

Exploitation of the pilgrims.  Where, in a month of Sundays, do the full on marketed, media savvy, slick and obscenely wealthy mega churches get to be the gentle, caring and compassionate body of Christ in their community.  In what caring community do people beggar themselves to give to a church the huge wages to a pastor who lives in house none of them could ever hope to even visit. 
Our righteousness, our welcome into the house of prayer is not defined or measured by wealth or expensive ritual or outspoken philanthropy. All are welcome, says Jesus – there is no sacrificial payment at the door or turning away of those who can offer only themselves – that is the gift that honours God most.  Christ asks for our love and our commitment to love and serve in his name, and weeps where anyone else puts and entry price on that welcome.

Jesus tells us that we as the church are to have neither buildings nor wealth nor judgement nor self -righteousness as our temple – we have Christ who is our home, our richness, our wisdom and our teacher constantly and lovingly reforming us and renewing us to his image.  So if our tables get overturned from time to time, it is so that we might more clearly see that the God who loves us so is guiding us in the way of life and hope for all people.  Amen. 

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 March 2015. Lent 2 Quarterly Communion

Readings:  Genesis 17:1-7,15-16,  Mark 8:31-38

Let us pray:  May we hear your word for us today O God and may we respond in generous faith to all you require of us in Jesus name.  Amen.

Has anyone entered into any negotiations recently – it might be a about division of labour at work, a bit of haggling at the Farmer’s Market, a placement of a bit of furniture in a new house, or an employment contract – what ever it is there is usually a suggestion of a bit of toing and froing – a touch of conditional (If I do this how about you do that?), a holding back from what you are eventually prepared to agree to and a sense of achievement if you get what you want for less.  When I first travelled through Asia and India – it took me some time to feel comfortable with negotiating prices for goods, even a taxi ride.  I was used to someone offering straight up what they wanted or had to give without this negotiating aspect to it – cultural bias of course but still unsettling. 

In the reading from Genesis we hear Jahweh offering Abram a Covenant – in today’s dictionary defined as a binding agreement or contract – but do you know what  – there was not an ounce of haggling going on here – it was a take it or leave it contract with no wriggle room.  So, the world would  say cynically, all the power was in the hands of  one side (Jahweh’s)  and therefore no need for generosity, abundance.
Nuhuh – wrong – Jahweh held nothing back - this offer of covenant was nothing less than the gifting of divine reconciliation with no need for any reciprocity from the other party.  Unconditionally gifted divine love and the promise of faithfulness through all generations.  Abram and Sarai must have been pinching themselves.

 A commentator points out that this covenant was totally initiated by God - ‘I will be their God’ - and it is not until the writings of Jeremiah that we first hear the response ‘and they shall be my people’.  Essentially God is for us without any response from us – grace indeed.
Unbelievable really – as were the promises of the covenant – aged parenthood, a line of descendents that would include kings and nations and forever.
Unbelievable too was the concept that this God who was all powerful, God Almighty, One God, giver of grace and reconciling love could bring that grace again to us in the form of a bound and suffering Servant, destined not for ruling in power and might but to be mocked, crucified, rejected by friends and foe alike.

Peter certainly had trouble with this – so much so that he didn’t even hear the words of grace and reconciliation that Jesus offered – ‘and after three days would rise again...’  He got stuck on the ‘crucified’ part – and I am guessing that this didn’t fit his hope for the coming of the Messiah – the long awaited one who would rule in power and might and deliver the people from the invaders and oppressors.  You can almost see Peter taking Jesus aside, gently chiding him for being so pessimistic and suggesting he try the scenario again – his way. 

Joseph Small calls this the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. The theology of Glory he says is built on what appears to be self evident about life and on assumptions on our part about the way God is expected to act in the world.  The theology of the cross on the other hand is grounded in God’s self revelation in the weakness of suffering and death. 

These two windows into the nature of God , that of Jahweh who offers grace abundantly and unconditionally and of Christ who brings the same grace through a path of suffering and death, they show a God who will not be shaped to our expectations, our idea of hope and power and belonging.
God’s church is not a place of privilege and prosperity but of ordinariness and humility, faith doesn’t mean certainty, hope is not optimism, love is not painless. 

Yet we mustn’t sit back and be in anyway patronising of Peter’s response – to think we wouldn’t have done as Peter did. It is all too easy to fit God to our expectations and not listen to the radical and often astonishing way that Jesus offers because our minds simply won’t grasp the possibilities, cannot come to grips with the unbelievable perhaps.
And in three days the Son of Man will rise again.  That is the unbelievable for Peter and so he shuts off from those words and runs instead with challenging the unacceptable premise that Jesus, friend, counsellor, hope for the world is going to die.
 He wasn’t listening was he?  He was allowing his ideas to drown out the voice of hope and radical grace that was the journey beyond the cross.

This for me links in very closely with what we are exploring in our Wednesday Worship this time – in how we give ourselves time, space, intentional opportunity to hear the radical and the unexpected and the unbelievable that is God in us and in the world.  Learning how to listen to God – in prayer, in hospitality, in reading and silence and in community with each other helps us to hear God’s voice and to truly listen to the hope and grace offered to us.
Do we believe in a God, have a faith that is confined to our way of thinking or are we willing to listen to the unbelievable?  There is a question for Lent!

And as we come together around the table today, how do we see that?  Is it a ritual subdued to our needs of reward, worthiness, membership, tradition or is it a place of absolute and open vulnerability and welcome to all people where, for a moment, we encounter the hospitality of the living Christ, the Jesus who took that walk to the cross and beyond and hear, truly hear the unbelievable grace that is our God. Amen.

Margaret Garland