Sunday, 27 September 2015

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 27 September 2015 Pentecost 18

Readings: Psalm 19:7-14Mark 9:38-50

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.

Over coffee a couple of days ago a friend asked me a very hard question:  are we, as Christians, willing to be inclusive even to the point of death?  And I was silent – perturbed by what that might mean, not wanting to trivialise by some twee answer, needing time to ponder such a challenging question.
I’ve had a few days – it is still a challenge and the answer is still beyond reach but I would like to share some of the thoughts I have had.

And those thoughts are guided by the reading from today. For Jesus’ response to the news that a man is casting out demons in his name but outside of the community of faith is somewhat puzzling to his followers.  The disciples expect action, a shutting down of this danger and are bemused by his lack of action – how could he allow this person to use his name and do his work of healing without their first belonging, their commitment to the way of Jesus through community.  And Jesus reassures them – the power of the living God is in every situation where good is done and kindness shared, where Jesus name is invoked and where love is shown.  He has, in this one response, broadened the people’s understanding of what it means to be inclusive.

So we begin by thinking about how we use commonly use the term inclusive today – and its supposing antonym exclusive.  I certainly talk about inclusiveness in terms of language especially in worship – how it can exclude people in unceasing maleness, how the theology and language of some (older and modern) hymns can sometimes be more harmful than helpful and others are timeless despite their old fashioned language.
We use the word when we question the right of the church to exclude people from leadership and other human rights because of their sexuality, their race, their social standing.  We are an inclusive church – we welcome all people is the byword for today.  Exclusive means putting boundaries other than faith seeking on those who can join.  Exclusive means thinking we have the right to say who God calls to faith and community.  Exclusive is dangerous. 
But so too is inclusiveness if it means we lose our sense of who and whose we are.  If we water down our purpose and knowledge of God to a point where anything goes – then we lose our integrity as the people of God, called to be set apart, to live a radical faith and to engage with the world through the vision of Jesus.  In that sense we are exclusive – and need to be so.

But there is a big chunk missing from our understand of inclusive and exclusive– those of you who are ahead of me will realise that the talk so far is all about relationships within the church – how we behave to others within the community and how we treat those who come seeking us.  Looking inward in other words.  What about looking outward?

And it is this conundrum that faces the disciples.  There is someone out there who is using Jesus name and healing people of demons – and he is not a member of the community.  They need to shut him down – he hasn’t gone through the proper channels.
And Jesus response points us firmly towards expecting God’s presence to be at work in the world, outside of our enclaves of faith and definitely outside of our expectation of measurable returns.  He also says that we are to expect to be fed in that experience.
Some people struggle with this. They struggle with the idea that they might have to be in real relationship with those who are outside the faith community.  They struggle with engaging in dialogue with people of other faiths or of no faith, believe that only good works done in a Christian context can be pleasing to God.  And yet Jesus tells us whoever is not against us is for us – helping to bring the purpose of God in this world to fruition –to bring healing, justice, mercy and love to all the world.
Why are some Christians fearful of engaging in this way with the world? Because I think it does come mostly down to fear – fear that their faith is not strong enough, fear that they might be hurt, fear of losing control of how it works, fear of the unknown – that their Christian exclusiveness is not about being set apart as God’s people but about protecting what is theirs.  No great trust in the immensity of God’s purpose for us and the world one suspects.

There is the story of the Christian Bishop in New York who, immediately after the 9/11 attacks participated in an outdoor service alongside religious leaders from many different traditions – there were those in his diocese who then had him removed because they felt that by participating he was recognising the legitimacy of the prayers of others.  Similar to a recent event in NZ? Fear of contamination versus strength of faith allowing us to fellowship with those who are not of our way.
So being inclusive as a church means not just being kind and welcoming to those who walk in that door there, but also facing outwards, engaging with those who are different, of whom we might know nothing and expect even less.  And sometimes, yes, that might mean us engaging with those who are potentially a danger to us and our way of life – is this what it means to be inclusive to the point of death. 

We put ourselves as disciples of Jesus into a story of today.
What has been our reaction as Christians to the refugee drama that has so connected with people around the globe? Well it has been mixed.  And for some Christians, fear of what might be has led to an outpouring of almost hysterical response to keep our doors, our borders closed to keep out the refugees.  You can see responses online – where Christian brothers and sisters have posted and resposted comments such as ‘it’s just a plan for Islam to take over the world’ or ‘they’ve got cell phones so they can’t be that desperate’ and the cartoon of a Trojan horse outside the gates of Europe saying refugees on the front and ISIS on the back.  Some are just plain dumb – but these types of comment are all over the web, all label themselves proudly Christian and all are horrifying in their lack of understanding of the teachings of Jesus – where hospitality and welcome extends to all no matter who they are and protecting our patch by putting up walls is the absolute antithesis.
So we don’t get to say that we will put up a wall instead of a door, we don’t get to label people in such a way that we don’t then have to care for them, we don’t get to find reasons why they are not our ‘neighbours’, we don’t get to protect our way of life by excluding possible dangers but instead we get to ask how does the love of Christ constrain me and liberate me in this particular situation. Let those be the online posts we get to read about, not this fear filled isolationism.

How we do need to take seriously the thought that we need to be inclusive even to death – strong in our belief as God’s people, firm in our following of Christ’s commandment of love for God, neighbours and self and enemies whilst engaging in relationship with others even when it may hold danger and discomfort.  For even if there are people among refugees who are not as deserving, even if there are undesirables among them, even if some might be our enemies, even if life is less comfortable, even if there is a change in our lifestyle with the influx of a very different peoples, Jesus says we are to welcome them, engage with them and be prepared to know God more deeply within those relationships.   True inclusiveness means the way of costly, self-sacrificial love – to the cross.
So when the refugees come to this place, when we are asked to engage with those who are different, let us show that we are Christians by our love.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 13 September 2015 Pentecost 16

Readings: Proverbs 1:20-33, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-30

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

In my monthly retreat day this past week I read some Wind in the Willows.  It’s good to know what a minister does with their spiritual reflection time isn’t it?  There is some good stuff in there though, and the characterisations of Mole and Ratty and Toad and Badger are altogether too close to home at times.  Probably the most foolish of the four is Toad – exuberant, impulsive, obsessive, refusing to hear the words of his friends who can see disaster looming and try to talk him out of whatever his latest craze might be.  Even landing in jail as a result of his love affair with crashing fast  expensive powerful cars is not enough to being an end to his foolishness.  At the very end of the story we think maybe he might have learned his lesson – but….we can’t be sure.

Enter Wisdom: calling out in the streets, begging to be heard.  We turn our backs, stop our ears, tune out, grab the nearest fast car (or our equivalent of it) and speed off into our inevitable catastrophe.  Too harsh do you think?  We are not Toad-like extremists, never listening.  But all the other characters from Kenneth Grahame’s story also have their moments of foolishness (Badger perhaps less so) – where the voices of their friends and their own wisdom just can’t seem to dissuade them from silly choices.

There are two strands of thought from this that I would like to pursue.
The first is encapsulated in a quote from commentator Mark Douglas:
‘For James, [the epistle writer] evil is not defined by consistently foul action but by its capricious movement between the fair and the foul”[1].  In other words – we are both made in God’s image, the fair, and we are capable of cursing each other – the foul.  We are capricious creatures.
The second thought is that we rely on those around us to guide us out of foolishness and, if that doesn’t work, to be there to pick up the pieces – just as Mole and Ratty and Badger did for Toad. 

We are all capable of both wisdom and foolishness – and this works on a whole bunch of levels.  On one hand, there are the things that we immediately know are wrong, hurtful, but there are also the things we do that we are convinced are wisdom, have every rational argument and historical support for but don’t hear when a new truth comes along.  This was the case with the disciples when Jesus asked them ‘Who do you say I am?’  They had been able to loose some of the more fanciful answers because Jesus first asked ‘Who do the people say I am?’  Elijah, John, a prophet!  But Peter says ‘the Messiah’.  Discerning words, we think, good old Peter  – yet what follows shows Peter’s inability to actually listen to the new truths that Jesus is teaching – Peter’s messiah still came in triumphant power and glory, Jesus, the Messiah came to suffering, rejection, execution.  Peter had yet to actually hear the words of wisdom.  Are there words of wisdom that Jesus brings to us that we actually haven’t heard, that we slot conveniently into our already determined understanding when God is asking us to break out into something new, some fundamental change of direction in our thinking?  This reminds me of one of the many gems from the Joy Cowley workshop last Sunday afternoon that she just kind of threw into the mix – to stop seeing The Fall as our primary response to God and to live in the exuberant generous grace that is God with us. Major shift in thinking for many who live in the Christian faith I would think.  New truth.

What about the things of the moment – the ordinary.  James picks up on a piece of foolishness that is everyday, commonplace – our choice of how we use the power of speech!  For our words have the capacity to heal or to harm, to build up or demolish, to calm or to set on fire.  It is no small responsibility for each of us – and particularly when we are in a position of some mana – where through what we say, we influence the thinking and lives of others.   May the words of my mouth… acceptable in your sight…take on a very real meaning.
We need to be careful, says James, and wise in how we use words.  And for all James words being known as ‘wisdom writings’ – (called by one writer a ‘homiletical mural) – we need to be careful not to cherry pick out of context.  For example, if we were to extrapolate the phrase ‘No-one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison’[2] – should language as we know it cease to exist?  I don’t think so.  Wisdom is actually about interpreting knowledge of who we are in the light and love of Christ, that is to understand our capacity for hurting others and to let love stop our words of poison.  In fact knowledge by itself without the heart, (love,wisdom) to guide our application of knowledge could very well be one of the best definitions of foolishness.
Did you know today is Humanity Sunday.  It seems that the events of the last week have only emphasised our inhumanity.  The peace lecture where Rabbi Morgan emphasised that unless we can truly view ‘the other’ as worthy of our respect and compassion, then we will never lose the acts of war that have decimated our world.  The Refugee Crisis where our Government had to be convinced that we needed to up our quota and still sits on a paltry increase when the some of the rest of the world is rediscovering the meaning of generous hospitality.  Heartening to be at the rally in the Octagon – and to hear the determination of Council and politicians and people to change that.
The foolishness of the world is to be met with the loving compassion and hospitality of those who believe that we not only need to guide the world away from the idiocy of war and greed and fundamentalist power struggles but that we also need to be there to pick up the pieces that result from these acts.  We are one family are we not?  All people are worthy of our respect and compassion are they not? Is it time that we, like wisdom, shouted out our frustration at the way people fail to understand the consequences of acting in selfishness, anger and destruction? Where is our voice to guide the world out of its foolishness?

Yet even that is not the whole – we have to demonstrate in our own lives, our communities of faith especially, that we follow the way of wisdom, the way of God, the teaching of Christ.  There is a great deal of wisdom within the church, especially the recognition that we can only live this life of right choosing within community – that we need to hear each other’s understandings, listen to differing perspectives so that we can make decisions that put aside foolishness and embrace wisdom – God’s way, not our way is a journey we take together.  And we are not going to get it right – picking up the pieces of foolish choice needs to be done in love and compassion, and those of us who get it wrong (and that is each one of us at some stage) can recognise that actually we haven’t been cut off, our family is still there for us, we are loved despite our foolishness.  Not easy when we think of some of the actions and words of our church family but the way of Jesus none the less. 

So let us grow in wisdom – in our language, our actions, our beliefs and our understandings.  Let us show the world that the ways of God, of love and forgiveness, of hospitality and compassion, respect, mercy are indeed the wisdom of the Christ, the one who came not as a judgement on the world, but to reconcile humanity with God so that our living might reflect the wisdom of living in the way of love, the way of Jesus. Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 4 p.64
[2] James 3:8

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 6 September, 2015 Pentecost 15 Holy Communion

Readings: Mark 7:24-30   Matthew 6:7-13

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.

Don’t call me God.  I’ll call you.
Well, I don’t mean it to be that way.
It’s just that prayer tends to be on my terms,
when I’ve got the time and inclination,
and even then, I do all the talking,
as though God didn’t already know what was in my heart.

Yes, I’m aware that conversation is a two way business
but I guess it’s easier for me to talk
because I’ve got a bit of a hearing problem,
and God’s voice is so terribly quiet
that listening can be hard work.
It means tuning into a huge silence
in order to pick up a whisper or two.

I’m not good with silences.
They make me feel disconnected.
I want to shout down the line:
‘Are you working?  Is anybody there?’

I think I need some practice,
still times to sit with silence
and feel comfortable with it
so that I recognise the voice when it comes.

And who knows?  Maybe one day I’ll discover
that the best part of prayer
is to let God do the talking.
                        Joy Cowley’s words.[1]

I wonder if that sums up how we struggle with prayer.  Certainly resonates with me.
For how many of us is prayer a time when we reel off our requests, opinions, observations and then, figuratively speaking, hang up on God.  Rowan Williams in the chapter on prayer in the book ‘Being Christian’ picks up on this very clearly.  He quotes the early church scholars in their understandings of the Lord’s prayer – it begins ‘Our Father,..’ that’s our  Father – we have been adopted into relationship with God through Jesus – we are one with Jesus in saying ‘our father’, recognising the closeness and intimacy, the oneness of parent and child.  So what are doing hanging up after we have cried out for help?  That’s not prayer – that’s a tirade.  Instead we need to be emptying ourselves of our limiting images and allowing God to speak into our hearts. 
We get to talk to God in a new way through Jesus, one where we are taken to the very heart of God – is that not worth looking for, seeking out?  To grow in our Christian life, to hear, to learn, first we acknowledge God in us.  Our words of prayer come after we have emptied ourselves of our priorities, and allowed Jesus to take us to the intimacy that he shared with his Father.
Prayer is God’s word in us, not us trying to get God interested.

And do we think prayer is only a time of well crafted words once a week on Sunday – again some more Joy Cowley words:

The way I see it Lord,
there is outer prayer and inner prayer,
words written for the eyes and the mouth,
words spoken for listening ears,
[and] words stumbling along in the mind
falling over each other in an attempt to express the inexpressible,
words rushing up from feelings of
love or gratitude or distress…..[2]

All of it prayer, all of it – the explosion of joy where no words will do, the deep felt need of God in despair, the words you have agonised over for Sunday worship and the words that trip of your tongue in a moment of deep revelation.  All are prayer.  All are connections with God in Jesus.  All are way in which we discern the eternal action of God in us and through us in this world.

Another point that Williams makes is that prayer is best experienced most meaningfully when other issues in our lives are dealt with.  That being quiet before God needs to be at a very deep level, that if we are not reconciled with those we are divided from, forgiving those we begrudge, at peace with our world and our part in it –our listening and prayer will still be filled with our priorities and distractions.  Moreover, if we are serious about understanding that, in prayer, Jesus lives in us, then how could we not want to live in his way of peace, justice, reconciliation – and expect the result of prayer to be the increase of the same.  We pray because Christ is in us, and in prayer Christ works in us.

And the final point that Williams makes is that prayer is about faithfulness, fidelity.  And this is probably one of the hardest things for many of us - the habit of prayer, the constancy, the deepening understanding that prayer is not in our control, but in fact a journey into the unknown, where we are often uncertain as to what is going on, often baffled or feeling we have been hung up on, but where we persist because that is who we are, that is God alive in us.
We have all struggled with distractedness when we pray;
concentrating really hard until all those wayward thoughts
intrude or we begin to doze, we have all felt as if we are in a no-where place, we all have tried to shape prayer into a one way conversation – our way!
But in truth, our life in prayer, our life with God is well beyond our limited imagination or our control, but this we know:  it is a place of mystery and growing, it is a place of surprise and intimacy, of enlightenment in the very moment of darkness, of frustration and deep contentment, of change and absolute peace - it is, after all, about allowing God in Jesus Christ to live in us and through us – what else would we expect?  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] From Aotearoa Psalms
[2]  From Come and See p.98

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 30th August 2015 Pentecost 14

Readings: James 1: 17-27, Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15,  21-23

Let us 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.

Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

If there was ever a challenging verse in the bible to our way of living – this is it!
We win no points for following doctrinal rules for their own sake – for that is human tradition; but we are to be held accountable for the stuff that we do, the things we say, the silences we keep – for it is God’s command that what comes from the hearts is that which honours or dishonours God.
What goes in the mouth heads for the stomach, through the body to its eventual destination  - that which comes from the heart through our mouths, out actions, our inaction, has the capacity to build up or destroy.

A story:  there was a woman who believed that the act of going to church each Sunday and living a moral life was what God required of her.  Faithfully for years she turned up each week, listened and sang and prayed.  Then she went home, content in her commitment to her faith, her God and her rules of living.  On her way home each Sunday, though, she muttered under her breath at the family that set up their stall selling flowers and vegetables.  So wrong on a Sunday, so demeaning for the neighbourhood, such a blatant display of money at all costs – breaking the rules.  And so one day she said so.  Loud and clear.  Turns out the family were raising money for the local night shelter for women – they couldn’t afford to give from their own purses, life was very tight, but this way they offered the produce of their land to help build the life of those in need.  Who was defiling who here?

It is fairly obvious to us all, I suspect, that rules, doctrine, rituals alone, followed without love and grace, separated from the teachings and life of Jesus, will take on a shallow and hurtful face very quickly.  Even more, they might convince us that it is all that God requires of us – attendance at church, tithing, not swearing, modesty and moral living.

Not so, say our readings today.  Being ‘religious’ is not enough, says the writer of James, if we are not also ‘doers’! Following rules about how we prepare food that goes into our mouths is neither here nor there, says Jesus, if our hearts are not set on the way of Christ.  Our behaviour, our words, our actions, our inactions; that which comes out from us, cannot be disconnected from our beliefs, our doctrine, our faith.  For that disconnect is downright hypocritical and deserves to be ridiculed.

Let us think for a moment of the ways in which our words, our actions can diminish or build up.  Think of the ways in which the words and actions of others have destroyed us, or made us whole.  We have an enormous power in us to direct the lives of those around us.  We have an enormous responsibility to be aware of the impact of our words and actions on others, to take seriously the living of our faith every day.
And it seems appropriate at this seasonal time of new beginnings, budding growth, to ask ourselves afresh, are we the signs of God’s new creation, new life in this place through our actions, our words, our behaviour?  Are we taking responsibility for the potential we all have to both be creative and be destructive?  Do we know ourselves well enough to know when we are being hurtful and do something about it?  Do we also sometimes not say the words of support and care because we are afraid they might be misinterpreted or leave us open to ongoing conversation? And, conversely, are we recognising when someone’s behaviour to us is unhelpfully hurtful and, with respect, challenging that behaviour. There are few of us that are confident enough in our selves and of our abilities not to be easily hurt by words that diminish us.   In fact is that not the entry into bullying and abuse where unkind words and demoralising accusations are piled upon us until we lose all sense of self worth. 

Now we are not a people who go around bullying and abusing – let’s get that straight – in fact we are quite the opposite – you would have to go a long way to find a more supportive and encouraging community.  But it doesn’t mean we are perfect - we can hurt each other, intentionally or otherwise, we can withhold grace or be less than generous with our interpretations, our support, our language.  We are human after all but as Christians this is something we are called to account on and so we need to be aware of and work to make better.
But then the writer of James intimates that there is more to our life in God than simply refraining from hurting.  We are to build up too. Everything we do, say and are is to be for the purpose of building up relationships, community, kingdom.  Again we won’t always get that right either – but we are to try nonetheless.

How is this to be lived out in our church?  There are a couple of things I would like to touch on.

One is our pastoral care for each other.  It is a particular strength of some of us and for others it is scary territory.  Why is that?  Beyond the natural empathy, is this possibly one of the instances where our human traditions have eclipsed what needs to come from the heart?  We have established a theory of pastoral care, have separated it from the everyday, and don’t think we can measure up – but surely the care that comes from the heart, to love one another, to build up relationship and each other is the care that God is asking us to share with our travellers on the road – and with those standing on the margins.  Care for others is not an elected role folks, it is deep with in each one of us. Every time I feel inadequate in my pastoral encounters, I remember, eventually, that it is not about me but about the presence of God in my heart that will bring healing and comfort and new beginnings.  They are not my words, carefully constructed, but God speaking impulsively and caringly from the heart of belonging.  In that understanding the awkward hug, the difficult discussion, the sense of inadequacy to fix things takes on a purpose beyond our understanding.

The second thing I wanted to touch on came out of the Study Group’s discussion on Wednesday night as we explored the Moderator’s Andrew Norton’s White Paper, and will be part of our work at the Parish Council retreat day on Saturday.  Are we a faith community that feels in some sense bullied into isolation - thinks it is best to do it alone?  Are we allowing the sense of dismissal, diminishing from others – wider church, a secular community, dynamically alternative way of the world – are we allowing that to muffle our voice, bind our actions, even turn us inwards on ourselves.  Is the balance we have between doctrine and works, ritual and heart, rules and radical faith one that prevents or encourages us to journey together one in a way that honours God and lives out Jesus teachings?
Andrew thinks the divisions in our church and the energy focussed on those divisions have decimated our sense of oneness as the body of Christ, that we therefore can no longer speak as a body, and be respectively heard, on any of the issues of justice and poverty and other public square issues when our only concern appears to be the defining of sexual morality. What were those words from Isaiah again ‘in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine….’[1]
Have we shut down, afraid to speak out, flinching from the expected blows of unkind words before they are spoken and avoiding contacts that may reject us and our beliefs.  Is our safety and our well being out of kilter with our hearts belief that, as the people of God, we are to be builders of new beginnings for all people. 
Here’s a thing:  when we do venture out, to each other and to the world we live in, we find we may actually be welcomed, those of us who come with our God-convicted hearts on our sleeves, rather than human precepts as our armour!  

Something to reflect on – and with this I finish:  Our God is a God of purpose – ‘That we are to be generosity grounded in the character of God and embodied in the mission of Jesus’[2].  May this speak to our purpose as the people of God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Mark 7:7
[2] Peter Rhea Jones in Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 4 p.19

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 9 August, 2015 Pentecost 11

Readings:  Ephesians 4:25-5:2 , John 6:35, 41-51

We pray:  Gracious God : we have listened to your word, help us to hear it in our hearts and our minds as we seek to know you more deeply, to live in your way more completely.  Amen.

I don’t know if many of you are following along with the reading of a book of the bible a month but if you are, those of us who have just completed reading the book of Exodus (and others) will know that, amongst its many narratives, there is a genuine attempt by the people to figure out how to live a life pleasing to God, the God who brought them out of slavery. And on Thursday night, amid the many aspects we discussed, we talked about why it seemed that the ten commandments weren’t enough, that the way of how to live in a way pleasing to God had to be spelled out in great detail.  As we would say these days - micro-managed. 
Take this example in Exodus 22:25-27 “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbour’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbour’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbour cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”  Or the detailed list of how many oxen or goats or sheep to compensate acts of negligence or intentional abuse.
In much of Exodus the law making basically reflects an underlying compassion and care for neighbour and justice and right-living.  If the consequences of failing to live by these laws are a bit bloodthirsty, that perhaps reflects the times, and understandings of God but the intention of care for each other, especially for the weak and vulnerable, is there.
However even that didn’t make it right all of the time either.  But it guided them, put some structure around ‘how to’.
Our discussion of the first two books of the Hebrew Scriptures has also included the realisation, for me anyway, that people really haven’t changed much over 3000 years – culture and approach, yes, but people and their very human traits, not really.  I think we could safely say that for the people of Exodus, the people of Ephesus and for us now today, we all have the strong desire to get things right before God and unlimited ability to get it totally wrong.

For Paul too is seeking to expand, to the people of Ephesus, what the commandment of Jesus to love and live in community is actually all about.  The call to love and live in the way of Jesus is not enough.  The very real experience of the Christ crucified and risen, a God who led the people out of slavery - was not enough to keep them from stumbling, getting it wrong.  They needed more guidance.  And so these words from Paul to help encourage them in their Christian life, challenge the way of living that he saw before him, the ways that hurt and diminished others.

I’m not sure that the congregation in Ephesus would have been the easiest church to minister to.  There seems to be some fairly basic unloving behaviours that Paul calls them out on.  Lies, anger in action, thieving, gossip and maligning, and then that stream of things that grieve God through the Spirit: bitterness, wrath, anger and wrangling and slander and malice – put them all away and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[1]

And it seems to me that this is the core of Paul’s message:  yes we need and seek to live honestly and lovingly, always in light and loveliness but actually we all have the ability to misinterpret, monster the truth, get carried away with detail to the detriment of grace.
.  We are who we are – and we can strive all we like but there are going to be times when we upset one another, inadvertently wound, intentionally wound, lose perspective, think ungenerously.  So the fundamental tool of living as Christians, alongside our love, is to know the power of God’s forgiveness in our lives and to forgive others. Without forgiveness, love loses its way.  With forgiveness, love is strengthened and constantly showcased to the community and the world.   

So what are our ethics of living?  What does it look like to live as the transformed and transforming community of Christ? 

I think that the first thing is to acknowledge that when we choose to walk the way of Christ we are marked, have entered into new life.  As the people of God we have taken off our old self and put on the new.  We, in relationship with Christ, are set to a transformed way of living, one which we live in the strength and discernment of the faith community and in which we seek to imitate, not grieve the Beloved, our God.

I think too that we are human, we carry all the human behaviours and emotions in us - including anger, envy, self-righteousness, possessiveness, pettiness etc – it would be silly to deny that.  The thing is that in Christ there is something greater, something that turns us to face the world and the way we live in a transforming way – and that is love.  For God and for each other.  Because we want to, because it serves God and therefore it serves the world.  And we have to get it right for ourselves first so that we can serve the world, so we can put right and reconcile and transform.

It is not easy.  But here are some thoughts.
Let us look at anger – one of the things that Paul concentrates on.  Not ‘don’t get angry’ by the way but do not sin with your anger. Anger that sits with you, unresolved is the worst kind – it festers and grows and harms.  Anger is to be dealt with swiftly, named and the issues it raises are to be reconciled within the community of faith.  None of us wish to be the cause of grief to the community, but a festering anger is hurting everyone.  So the thing we are asked to do is deal with it in love and respect, honestly and in the light of Christ.  When you can speak an issue into a community that believes in forgiveness and reconciliation through Christ, that respects honesty and loves each other, how many of the sharp edges of anger can be dissolves and the source of the anger resolved.  A great deal I would say.  

The honesty and hard work recommended for those who live by stealing is not by means of punishment but rather so that they can be contributing members of society – not just stopped from taking what is not theirs but able to give to others, to support and encourage.  What price our justice system of focussed retribution and where our desire to prevent this social cancer, to turn people’s lives around so that they can become useful members of society.  And they are forever branded with the label of criminal by our behaviour to them.  Our Christian faith says we offer again and again the chance for them to become givers, not takers, supporting them into their new life.
And we are told to stop talking evil – tell the truth, be aware that words can wound deeply and are often a result of unresolved anger.  But like the advice to those who thieve, it is not enough to just stop saying nasty stuff – words are to be used to encourage and build up.   There is a tricky little mix: truth to be told and words to build up – there are times when that will feel almost impossible to achieve.  It’s both a challenge and an opportunity.  A challenge to speak truth in grace and an opportunity to use words as a creative act of community.

So we remember this.  We are marked for new life in Christ – transformed and transforming.  We do not intentionally seek to hurt those we love – to grieve God and each other – yet we do, and must seek and find forgiveness in God and each other, sooner rather than later.  We are walk alongside those who seek to live in new and better ways, helping them become people of gift and giving, and are to always live in honesty and truth, building up those whom we could so easily diminish.  And when we get it wrong, as we will, when others get it wrong, as they will,  we are to speak out in truth, always with the aim of building up, not tearing down.  And we are to forgive as God forgives us: for we are the beloved of God, and of each other.  They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.   Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] V.31-32

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 2nd August, 2015 Pentecost 10

Readings:  Exodus 16:2-3, 11-15,   John 6:24-35

Let us 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.

Aren’t you going to ask me into your home?

This week we explore further the thoughts of Rowan Williams from his book ‘Being Christian’[1] and today we talk about Communion, Eucharist. 

Jesus was absolutely into hospitality – he had a deep understanding of the importance of sitting round the table sharing food with others, talking, breaking bread together.  But more than that, he understood how important fellowship was - wherever he went people gathered, drawn to the genuine hospitality of soul that he offered.  And there is no doubt that he also understood the incredible weapon that was exclusion from hospitality and fellowship – when some were invited and others not - how hurtful, how diminishing it was for the rejected.
For Jesus met with everyone, those on the invite list and people definitely on the rejection list - the priests, the soldier, the tax collector, the woman at the well, the list goes on.  He met and shared hospitality with them all.  His indiscriminate generosity and the willingness to mix with proper and improper people (often at the same time) was, I Suspect, embarrassing at times to those around him but could not be denied by the writers of the Gospel.  It was obvious: when Jesus sought out company, the end result was a celebration and often around the table. 
This begins to give us what Williams calls the most simple and yet worth saying thing about the meaning of gathering around the table.  In Holy Communion, Jesus tells us that he wants our company – inviting us to be guests at his table - welcomed and wanted, all of us, and by doing this, challenging all the rules of protocol or status or invitation only.

But there was something else that Jesus did – and this is demonstrated beautifully in the story of Zacchaeus.  Jesus said: ‘Aren’t you going to ask me into your home?’  He draws out hospitality from others.  Zacchaeus would never have dreamed to extend that invitation by himself, but through Jesus welcome to him, he felt able to welcome Jesus into his home. 
Around the table today, throughout the world, the same thing happens – Jesus invites us to gather around the bread and wine, welcomed and wanted, and so we feel able to extend our welcome to Jesus to join with us here.  ‘Aren’t you going to welcome me into your home’ says Jesus to the people of Opoho?  And so the community of faith is created and sustained, here and everywhere, around Jesus’ welcome to us.

And this takes us into the next point Williams makes – that being invited as guests reminds us that we are given the freedom to invite others to be guests as well.  We have experienced the hospitality of God in Christ – our lives are therefore set free to be hospitable.  We are set free to make our communities of faith places of welcome for all those in need of solidarity, of fellowship – of offering bridges into warmth and care, of indiscriminate generosity and safe haven.  As a world wide movement, we can’t say we have always achieved that so well, can we?  And he challenges us with this statement:  “One of the most transformingly surprising things about Holy Communion is that it obliges you to see the person next to you as wanted by God.  God wants that persons company as well as mine” – something else that seems to be taking some time to sink in to a good number of Christians, yeah?

Williams also tackles the question of the sombre communion – something that Presbyterians seem to struggle with quite a bit.  In fact he quotes Queen Victoria as saying she couldn’t understand why the joy of Easter day has to be interrupted by such a sad happening as communion.  The starting point for celebrating communion, Williams says, should be just that.  Celebration! And so the sharing of food with the risen Christ is where we begin.  Through the locked door of Easter Sunday, into the room of troubled and uncertain disciples comes Jesus ‘Well, aren’t you going to give me something to eat?’  You can almost see them scrabbling around the cupboards for something to offer him.  And, too around the table at Emmaus, down by the shore of the lake ‘Do you have food to share with me?
Jesus is doing after death just what he was doing before – offering and inviting hospitality, continuing to welcome people to the table, each one of us.
I think some of us have probably lost sight of the invitation to celebrate new life, the risen Christ, in our concentration on the table as the place of sombre preparation for the shedding of life on the cross.  We don’t mean to, the words of hope and joy are there in the communion liturgy, but somehow where we have ended up treating this meal as a solemn ritual of seriousness, we are missing a good bit of the message of Christ’s hospitality, the celebration that the cross leads us to – the resurrection. 
So it is not that we bypass the Passover meal – but it is rather about how we understand it -  and for some the language we use distracts too (blood shed, body broken). Every time we celebrate communion, yes we commemorate his death but we also affirm the risen Christ and live in expectation of his coming again.  Jesus points us to the cross as being the sign of new beginning, of promise, of a door into hope.  So we remember the pain, and we celebrate the promise.

But equally communion is not and cannot be ever be just about the good times. To know the fullness of God’s grace we must engage with the realities of the Passover meal, hear the truths that come from the breaking and piercing of the one who came only to love and heal and save.  
I want to pick up on a couple of the things Rowan Williams has to say here. 

The first is that Jesus himself points us through the events of Good Friday into Easter Sunday, identifying his body broken and his blood poured out (the bread and the wine) as a sign of God’s future, and so, in the very moment when death is most certain, he is able to give thanks.  He is connecting his own experience, even this deepest darkest moment, with the reality of God giftedness to the world.  In the celebration of Holy Communion, we give thanks for God with us, even in, especially in the darkest experience.  And this impacts on the way we see the world – in every corner of experience, good and bad, God the giver is at work. In every object, every living thing we are to see the sacred, the sacramental.  Think about how this colours our approach to the rape of the environment, to the seemingly hopeless, to the everyday. Reverence for the bread and the wine is the beginning of reverence for the whole world and of the belief that God is at work in the world, everywhere and in everything.  And each time we fail to live by this understanding, when we exploit and abuse, we are denying the giftedness of God made known in Christ.

The second is also a more sombre moment – those who gathered around the table with Jesus at that Passover meal included those who would betray him – not just Judas but those who left him alone, those who were afraid and who denied him.  And still he broke bread with them all, even knowing in a couple of hours they would abandon him.  We all have the capacity to betray and to abandon – yet we are all invited to the table again and again.  We need to confront our capacity to betray and forget the gift of God to us when we come to the table,  but here’s the thing -  we are not to be turned away because of it – in fact it makes our need for being at the table greater.  Williams says  “The eucharist is not, in Christian practice, a reward for good behaviour; it is the food we need to prevent ourselves from starving as a result of our own self enclosure and self-absorption, our pride and our forgetfulness”.  Our proper preparation for coming to the table is being prepared to be totally open to the gift of God’s forgiveness and respond with a willingness to transform our ways.

And so, in Holy Communion, the celebration and the sorrow, the Easter and the Cross are always there together.  And as we come together as Christians we come not to celebrate ourselves and how well we are doing, but to celebrate the eternal gift that is always there, and to give the thanks that is drawn out of us by that gift.  And we do this with the family of God, apostles, saints, and kindred thought out time and across the world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Rowan Williams.  Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  London:SPCK, 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 26 July, 2014 Pentecost 9

Readings:  Ephesians 3:14-21,  John 6:1-21

We pray:  Holy one, guide us, challenge us, transform us as we hear your word for us, for your church, for your world.  In Jesus name.  Amen.

The love of Christ that surpasses knowledge….to him who can accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine….

Today is a day to ponder impossibility – to crack open our contained view of the world and to know that which we could not, by ourselves, imagine.

Let us begin with a story that Mark sent me through, a story that connects the loaves and the fishes with our struggle to imagine knowing that which is beyond our experience, our contained view of what is.

It is from a book called "The Man Who Counted" by Malba Tahan and is about a series of mathematical adventures and riddles, and with a great deal about spirituality woven in.  Here the man who counted is being tested by great mathematicians from all over Asia and Arabia
He is asked to demonstrate that he could unite the material with the spiritual, solving not just human problems but problems of the spirit.  The question: “Which is the famous act of multiplication, which all histories mention and all men of culture know well, which uses only one factor?” There were grumblings of ‘outrageous question’ and utter surprise and impatience.
Beremiz replied: “The only multiplication using a single factor, known to all historians, men of culture, is the multiplication of loaves and fishes performed by Jesus, the son of Mary.  In that multiplication there is only one factor: the miraculous power of the will of God.”
An excellent reply, says his questioner – problem solved irrefutably!
This story breaks into the impossible: an outrageously impossible question (especially in the midst of a Muslim gathering) and an unimagined answer – much like the story of the loaves and fishes
And the connection is this:
The single factor in our lives that takes us beyond that which we know into the realms of that which surpasses knowledge, from what we think is possible to that which accomplishes more than we could imagine, is God. God present and active in the world.

The loaves and fishes – a story surpassing knowledge, going beyond what we could imagine.  A miracle story.

But immediately we call it a miracle, in this day and age, we run the risk of trying to contain it to our understanding.  Think of our reactions: we either try to explain it away (everyone got generous and pulled out their food to share) or we label it miracle, some magical material multiplication of matter.  Whichever way we see it we are still trying to haul this event in to a comprehensible (to us) explanation.  How many of us have sat through sermons which have sought to align the parting of the Red Sea with moon, tidal movements etc or others which have insisted on a hook, line and sinker swallowing of every single syllable.  We get caught up in the detail!

The reality is, the word miracle today is much more likely to invite disbelief, doubt, suspicion, be the butt of jokes precisely because we concentrate on the detail (either negatively or positively) so emphatically.

And commentator Douglas Hall suggests that when we spend too much time on the detail, we are missing the truly miraculous.  What was truly miraculous about the loaves and fishes, says Hall, is not that a seeming human could multiply loaves and fishes in such an astounding manner, but that this person could represent, by his words and deeds, such a sign of hope for the people that they would follow him, their hunger for the bread of life assuaged.  And what was truly awe inspiring is not that someone could walk on the surface of the water without sinking but that Jesus presence among ordinary, insecure and timid persons could calm their anxieties and cause them to walk where they had feared to walk before.  When the miraculous is identified too exclusively with the literal, the detail – then we miss the divine grace that permeates the whole of life.

Is this not part of what Paul was talking about when he said that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge and the fact that in Christ we can accomplish more that we could ever imagine.  I think so. 
He affirms the limitless love of Christ in several ways in this passage and encourages us to know that it is more than we could ever imagine.
In this prayer for the people of Ephesus, Paul recognises our need for the mind to understand, praying that the people might, with the saints, ‘comprehend’ the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love. With our mind we might know the truly miraculous. 
And yet it is with our mind that we so easily contain or limit the miraculous to the ordinary.  To know or have knowledge is to have something understood by the rational mind, within the bounds of logic and experience. It’s part of why we have the need to explain and defend and win arguments about what it is we believe. 
There is no doubt that that it is good that we seek to ‘know’ the love of God with our minds – to read and study and discuss - to hear the witness of others as we seek to understand. To see the fruits of the spirit around us and to remember. But here’s the thing – the questions are actually more important than the answers, are they not?  And the journey is much more important than arriving?  For whenever our mind seeks to contain, bind God with detail and explanation or even complacent answer we are confining the love of God to our knowledge, our perspective, not continually seeking the God beyond our knowledge.  Not a comfortable space to acknowledge that we don’t know it all, don’t have all the answers, that we are always going to falter in our ability to comprehend fully the extent, the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love for us. So we continue to seek understanding  of the love of Christ, knowing and accepting that the grace of God is truly miraculous, utterly beyond adequate imagining.

Paul speaks too of the joys of faith – the boundless capacity of God’s love for us – that God’s loves encompasses every human family – there is no nation, no clan, no family, no person – who is beyond the love of God.  When we try to confine this to ourselves, our ideology alone, to this time or race or perspective then we are diminishing the possibilities of God’s boundless love to human divisiveness and arrogance.   The truly miraculous is that we live into a faith where forgiveness, compassion, grace and mercy are not only taught but lived through Christ – and that only God knows the limits of how that faith might look in action. The possibilities, the fruits are beyond our imagining.

And then Paul assures us of the power of the Spirit, the ‘miraculous power of the will of God’ as Beremiz said, that lives in us and through us.  He appeals to our hearts – that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith.  That the love of God is so deeply held in our hearts that we are assured and strengthened even when we are struggling.  That in God all things are possible – that by living in love miracles do happen.  Paul prays that we might experience the love of God in heart and soul – we can’t understand how this is, we don’t get to measure it or adequately describe it, words fail us, we can only ‘know’ it, experience what Paul calls the fullness of God in our hearts.  In that strength, in that knowledge of God, we step out onto the risky waters, we extend dangerous hospitality, we look for the miracle among the mundane and the truly spectacular from the littlest of seeds.

So can we live into this impossibility do you think?  Live heart, mind and soul in relationship with a God whose love for us will always surpass our understanding, our boundaries, our experiences, and not be surprised at the miraculous power of the will of God.

Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Margaret Garland