Saturday, 3 December 2016

Sermon Opoho Church, Sunday 4 December 2016 Advent 2 Holy Communion

Readings:  Romans 15:4-7, 13,   Matthew 3:1-12

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.

‘May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’[1]

We place a great emphasis here at Opoho on welcome don’t we?  We try (and mostly succeed) in being a church that loves welcoming people, that nurtures and engages and lives in relative harmony as the people of God. There are moment when it is not so good, when personalities clash, where unintentional hurt is given and where the welcome is not all it could be.  I hope I am good at welcoming and connecting but I am painfully aware that distraction is my second name and I miss people because my brain is engaged elsewhere.  It is easy to feel ignored when the person you are talking to only gives part of their attention to you.  In fact, I remember a conversation up in the Hurunui some years ago when I was talking to a teacher at a school and was getting highly miffed at his seeming lack of attention to what I was saying until I realised he was hearing me and answering me perfectly – he just happened to be someone who had the ability to carry on conversations in his head and with someone else at the same time. Found out later he was an ex Master Mind by the way.

But welcome and harmony within the family of God is so much more than different personality types trying to get along and a sense of guilt at a failure to engage properly with each other.  So much more.

To help us dig deeper let us look at the words of verse 7 from Romans.
Where the NRSV uses the words ‘Welcome one another, just as Christ welcomes you’, the JB Phillips translation uses the words ‘Open your hearts to one another’ King James ‘receive one another’ and the NIV ‘accept one another, just as Christ accepted you.’  All of these are facets of the same gem – a gem that recognises our deep need to belong, to be accepted as who we are, to be loved and valued.
Jesuit theologian Peter van Breemen develops this theology of God’s radical love in our lives, saying that while every human being wants to be loved, there is a deeper need and that is to be accepted in this love for who you are, no matter what you have done or achieved or failed at.  I hope that every person here has a sense of that love, from God, and/or family, church community, friends.    I hope we all know the acceptance that is being loved unconditionally for who we are at some time in our lives.   

For, as Christians, this love is freely offered to us, is in fact right in front of us; that place of deeply fulfilled welcome by one who knows us intimately and loves us as we are, whose hand has our name written on it. 
This question does need asking though, for sometimes we forget or compromise.
Do we wholeheartedly accept that we are loved by God as we are?  Or do we still feel that we have to do something, be someone to have that deep sense of home, of welcome, of being received unconditionally? 
This is, I would suggest, absolutely core to whether we in turn can find a way to welcome others without judgement, with loving hearts and in hope.  Unless we experience the power of complete acceptance in our lives, we would find it very hard to offer it.

As I said before, welcome is more that courtesy and good welcome practice – it is that deeply sustaining understanding that we are held in love no matter what that allows us, in turn, to offer that same sanctuary of welcome to others, no matter their suitability or sustainability or mistakes.
That is the heart of our gathering around the table – the place where all are welcome as we are.  Not, as I once thought, only when I have my life in perfect order and am worthy but when we are just us with all our joys and brokenness, our hopes and fears, a motley crew of travellers on Christ’s way sharing the meal around the table.

It would be nice to stop there, yes?  We are loved and cherished by God. We are welcomed at the table, one body with Christ. 
But John whom we call the Baptist won’t let us do that.  John, in his baptising down by the river, is looking to our response to the grace of God, and when he welcomes people to repentance, he is pleading with them to realign their lives with God, letting them know that the one who is to come is the one who will lead us to God.
John challenges those who have based their wholeness with God on a singular moment of welcome (the promise to Abraham) and then deviated from the path of righteousness.  Not enough he says.  To bear fruit worthy of God, to walk in the way truth and justice and love you have to be in living relationship with God, so that you come to the river, eagerly laying down those things that separate you from God, seeking a new beginning. And that takes courage, for we need to accept the complete and intimate presence of God’s self in us, just as we are, without being able to tidy the house first so to speak – God knows us in all our moments, good and bad, cringe-worthy and best behaviour.  That is faith, that is love, that is acceptance that we are the beloved of God no matter what.      

And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, expands on this.  When we have accepted not just in our mind but in our heart of the complete stickability of God in our lives, it’s like we can find the courage to offer that same place of acceptance to each other, to the sometimes grumpy and the often distracted and different personality and one who has hurt you and the stranger who might hurt you. 

Dare I define harmony not as the lack of discord but as living in the common purpose and presence of God fresh every morning? 
Dare we understand welcome as lowering the barriers so all might come in, just as we are, striving to be better but knowing we are still completely loved when we are not?   

Dare we believe that, in Jesus, we are all accepted, no matter who we are and how many times we have to come to the river to begin again?

And from that place of belonging can we all pray for each other and the stranger ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’[2]

Thanks be to God. Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Romans 15:5-6 NRSV
[2] Romans 15:13

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sermon and Prayers Opoho Church Sunday 13 November, 2016 Pentecost 25

Readings:  Isaiah 65: 17-25,  Luke 21:5-19

Let us pray:  Holy God, in the midst of all that surrounds us, pierce our hearts and minds with your purpose that we might live in your way and trust in your promise to us.  In Jesus name.  Amen.

It is so good to be back – we have missed you all so much but equally have had an exciting and fascinating time away.  And while we have been away we have had a salutary reminder of the complexities of global living – something we can be a little detached from here in this island nation – as we moved among the fallout of the Brexit decision in Britain and Ireland. New things are happening in our world and they make us nervous.

For many people around the world the reality of God’s world is just so far from the vision of the new heavens and new earth that Isaiah speaks of.  Peace, justice, loving relationship – sometimes it seems there is not a lot of it to go around. The promise of what will be seems incredibly distant from the here and now.  And this is reflected in our two readings today of vision and reality – with Luke warning of turmoil to come and Isaiah talking of how it will be on God’s holy mountain where peace and contentment are the everyday.  In fact the story from the Hebrew Scriptures could have been written for today.  It involves a people who called themselves God’s chosen ones that have moved away so far from all that is fair and caring and just – it’s a hard time for them, for sure, lives are difficult, there is a huge resentment of other nations, division within and a cynicism that demands attention be on their needs.  They have lost their way. 
What does Isaiah say to them?  He paints a picture of paradise – a time where the most counter-intuitive relationships will exist: wolf and lamb, lion and ox, where no-one labours in vain and each is housed and fed, where weeping is no more and no child is born for calamity.  It would, I suspect, have seemed quite foolish and idealistic for a people determined to sort things themselves?

Conversely the reading from Luke is a text full of bad news, full of reasons for us to feel timid and helpless and hopeless as the world around us totters on the brink of anarchy and all we know is threatened.  Luke scares us, let’s face it.  It’s frightening stuff and the sheer immensity of what can go wrong threatens to overwhelm.  But Jesus has words of hope in the midst of the turmoil – he tells us to stand strong, that this is an opportunity to testify and we don’t have to rely on our own strengths for God is with us!

Funny how chosen bible readings speak into the events of our week and the fears of our hearts isn’t it.
Many of us are still reeling from this week’s political theatre; one that will have serious impact on the world stage let alone for many people within America.  We have heard throughout the Presidential campaign a rhetoric that leaves our hearts severely bruised and our minds reeling from the hypocrisy and the hatred and the lack of compassion.  While we can object to policies from all sides that are unjust, I don’t think we have ever heard such blatant sexism, racism, economic and environmental blindness as has been present these few months and is now in control.  If you read the papers, check the opinion pieces, there is a real fear out there of new and unthinkable global order.     
So, how do we respond?  We could join the protestors railing over what was in the end a democratic choice, or say it’s not our problem (and welcome a wave of new immigrants here) or sink into despair or hold our breaths and hope against hope that nothing goes wrong. But then again many of us never thought that Donald Trump would be elected in a million years so I don’t think that last one is the path to follow.
I could not begin to offer a balanced assessment of what has gone on – goodness knows there are enough ‘experts’ out there doing this already.  But there are some flags that pop up as we explore our readings for today.  Putting aside the sheer arrogance of those who add God to their election strategy, the things to think about are why has this happened and how do we respond as Christians into this turmoil.

Why – my simplistic answer is because the people are unhappy, like the people of Isaiah’s time.  The signs have been there for a long time as the political ineptitude and arrogance of those in power has left the people on the ground feeling powerless, adrift, not listened to.  And so, in fear, they turn to anyone who promises they can make it better.  Rabbi Sacks calls it the birth of a new politics of anger that can only be nullified if we create a new politics of hope – putting aside the divisive, disempowering, elitist and self serving mantra of the past decades and finding ways to strengthen families and communities, build a culture of collective responsibility and insist on the economics of the common good.
The trouble is of course so many of the people who embraced these false promises, even the promise maker, call themselves Christian, yet the way of Christ is not the path they choose to take.  The cost of their policies to the vulnerable, the future of the planet, the alienating of all who are different are so far from the vision of the Holy Mountain that we are left speechless.  For how can we any of us claim a relationship with Jesus Christ when we refuse to save refugees, or deny hope to immigrants, or refuse justice to the oppressed, or not have faith in those different from us, or deny love to our neighbours, strangers or even our enemies.  Self-preservation over self-sacrifice – not Christ’s way!  But hang on here – is not that same attitude rife here too – and not just in politics but in our everyday as well.  As America and Europe struggles with its reality, we too have to look at ourselves and recognise that the same disempowerment and divide exists here  and that we cannot sit back without responsibility – for it is through us that change must happen.

Jesus warns us that hard times will be.  He cautions us against following false prophets. He reassures us that we are loved and cared for and that we will continue to stand and be heard.  Not in our own strength or in the strength of others but in the power of the Word of God living in our lives.  We are the word, unshaken, continuing…..
We are to testify to the truth and to live in the patterns of mercy that Christ has laid out for us.
For we are able to give one drink of cold water at a time, we are able to bring comfort to the poor and the wretched, one act of mercy or change at a time. One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of commendation, one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person is a child of God, these are the patterns of mercy that are God’s grace that will transform the world.

So maybe it is time to reclaim the absurdity of self-sacrificial love – to be absurdly gracious, hospitable, kind, patient, self controlled and giving.  But more than that, recognise that this sits in the ‘hard basket’ of living.  That humbly serving others, defending the powerless, fighting for the oppressed and radically loving the world around you isn’t for the faint of heart and rarely results in comfort and security – which may explain why so many turn to the false Gods of this world.

I have run out of words – let us hear from someone else - we remain seated as we sing the words of hope for us and for the world from Ruth Duck……

Healing river of the Spirit, bathe the wounds that living brings.
Plunge our pain, our sin, our sadness deep beneath your sacred springs.
Weary from the restless searching that has lured us from your side,
we discover in your presence peace the world cannot provide.

Wellspring of the healing Spirit, stream that flows to bring release,
as we gain our selves, our senses, may our lives reflect your peace.
Grateful for the flood that heals us, may your Church live out your grace.
As we meet both friend and stranger, may we see our Saviour’s face.

Living stream that heals the nations, make us channels of your power.
All the world is torn by conflict; wars are raging at this hour.
Saving Spirit, move among us; guide our winding human course,
till we find our way together, flowing homeward to our Source.

Words Ruth C Duck, Tune Joel CH4 Alt Tune Nettleton

 Margaret Garland

Prayer of Intercession - Abby Smith

Sometimes, Lord, things don’t go the way we want them to.  Maybe something we really wanted doesn’t arrive.  Maybe something we really dreaded actually happens.  Sometimes it rains on our game, or someone else gets the prize, or we’re sick at exactly the wrong time.  The world is always reminding us – it is not ours to command.

If we can manage to look up – to forget our fears, our disappointments, our sadness, our losses – then we can see exactly who this world belongs to.

Lord, we can see you in the huge gorgeous globes of rhododendron flowers, exploding in the garden, if we just look.  We can hear you in the glad voice of a friend unexpectedly encountered, if we will listen.  We can taste and smell your bounty in the wine and the bread, and in the pesto on pasta, and in the roasted nuts, and in the ice cream cone, and in the thousands of tastes and smells.  We can touch you in the warmth of wool, the softness of silk, the coolness of cotton, the comfort of a hot bath.  All around us the senses -- that you gave us -- allow us to experience the world that proclaims it is your kingdom.

Your kingdom, not ours.  Your will, not ours.  Your world, not ours.

If we can manage to look up, then we see you.  And we turn to you with gratitude and with thanks.

Our stay in the world is short, and not always sweet.  We remember today people we know, and those we don’t know, who are sick and battling on for another day, or who have lost loved ones, or who are dying themselves.  We think of people we know, and those we don’t know, who are going without – who don’t have clean water, or adequate food, or proper shelter, or any security.  We think of people we know, and those we don’t know, who are scared and uncertain and insecure and unwelcome.  We think of people we know, and those we don’t know, who are suffering in any way. 
We pause now, and because it is your world and not ours, we place them into your care, into your hands, into your endless love.


Your kingdom, not ours.  Your will, not ours.  Your world, not ours.

If we can manage to look up, then we see what you want from us, and what this, your world really needs.  Truth, kindness, humility, justice, generosity, dedication, compassion, openness of spirit, faith, and love.  We pray that we will be what you need us to be, here in your world, your will, your kingdom.

We pray and sing together the Lord's prayer

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Sermon Kilsyth Church, Scotland 2 October 2016

Readings: 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Psalm 137:1-6

Prayer:  Gracious God, we have gathered as your people to praise, to pray, to hear your word for us and to go from here renewed in your grace and mercy, that we might be the people of Christ s you call us to be.  May we open our ears to hear your word for each of us today and may our hearts be moved to renewed discipleship in Jesus name.  Amen

Psalm 137, a cry from a people in exile.  ‘How could we sing  the Lord’s song in a foreign land.’ 
My study leave from the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is to explore the place of music in our worship, to find the ways in which our singing and playing helps us to know God more deeply, to hear the stories of when music has opened the door to experiences of God and when it has not.  This is a topic with very few boundaries and infinite possibilities, and I am still not sure what the end result will be.   I have questions on the language we use in music, the way it connects with the liturgy, how to keep it fresh and yet honouring where we come from, and how it expresses our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There was one thing though that I was particularly interested in before we set out – and that was the singing of the Psalms - and I have learned much about the love that especially the people of Scotland have for them. 
So far in our travels Mike and I have worshipped at Manchester Cathedral, St Columba Episcopalian church and St Giles in Edinburgh, Church of Scotland in Braemar and Crathie and at the Free Church in Lewis – at Back (where the Gaelic Psalm singing moved me to tears) – and now here.  It has been a journey that we have loved, missing our home but being welcomed as part of Christ’s body, his church in all these different places.  

Perhaps if I could talk a little bit about where we come from, and the journey of faith that the early  Scottish settlers took as they sailed from here to distant shores, then look at the ways in which hymn writing and singing has evolved in NZ and then share some thoughts of how music contributes to worship and to our faith journeys.

The cries of lament from the Hebrew people exiled to Babylon would, I am sure, resonated with the people of Scotland of the mid 19C – herded off their livings with often the only choice being to set sail or starve – how would they have felt I wonder?  Bitter, angry at God even?  Would they have found that being removed from the context of their faith shook their very foundations and left them bewildered like the people of Judah.  Did they forget God, not remember whose they were?  I don’t think so.  I think they would have used the words of this psalm to remind themselves of God with them wherever they were.  As Paul says to Timothy, as a gospel people they knew that there would be suffering and trial, uncertainties and challenges but that the power of God would hold them to purpose and that sound teaching would hold in the faith and love that is Jesus Christ.  So they took their bibles, sang their psalms, praised their God even if it was in a paddock or a sod hut far from all they knew.  Last year we were 150 years since the first sermon was preached in NZ – on the beach to the tangata whenua, the Maori people of Aotearoa – and it was at Christmas.  We have a hymn, a carol, written of it: Not on a snowy night by star or candle light, .....But on a summer day within a quiet bay, the local people heard the great and glorious word. (Willow Mackay – Te Harinui)
It was different in this new land – and it challenged our ancestors I am sure.  They had to find some new ways to sing the Lord’s song that not only was relevant for them but would also relate to a people who had never heard of Jesus before and had their own culture and spiritual understandings.  Some of those early Christian settlers found ways to share their faith with grace and understanding and grow in their relationship with God and each other – others would have struggled to maintain their traditions without the rhythm of life they had left behind.  Others would have been too inflexible, refusing to listen and learn and adapt to this very different land.  Some of that inflexibility remains still.   But generally, over time, there was a realisation that to worship God in a strange land was not just possible but brought new joys and understandings of God’s word.
The music they brought with them was a large part of this sense of continuity – praising God with psalms and hymns.  Remembering where they had come from but remembering also to be apostles and teachers and prophets in a new land.  When we were in Back, I spoke with the Minister,  Calum McLeod, and we talked about the threads that join us even now as a Christian people around the world, not just of faith, but of the way we engage musically as we praise our God, different though our ways might be. 

And in fact it has, in NZ, taken us a long time to find that expression of our way as we have grappled with some of the different contexts in which we worship and sing.  But local hymns have been emerging over the last 60-70 years that reflect our NZ story.  Today, here in Kilsyth, is harvest thanksgiving – in autumn, a time of settling and preparing for winter – for us in NZ we have this around April (our autumn)– and this means around Easter of course.  Easter falls for us not at the time of new birth, of spring, but in the season of thankfulness for what we have had and preparation for a time of reflection and quiet, of winter, before the hope of new birth.  So we have to think about how we preach and sing our Easter when our origins have traditionally placed it seasonally at a time of regeneration.  And so this hymn from Shirley Murray – one of our prolific NZ hymn writers:
When evenings shorten and grow cool, as grapes turn purple on the vine, as golden grain is safely stored, we see again our Easter sign
As rowans fade along the hill, and bush birds come to us for food, in rain, or mist or bitter chill we meet again our Easter God.
As trees grow bare, we see the trace of life’s new buds along the bough. We do not need to wait for Spring; Our Easter Lord is with us now.
So let the Southern Church rejoice! As colour flames from hill and plain we come with confidence to meet the Christ who died – yet lives again!  Words Shirley Smith Tune Gonfalon Royal

Then Christmas – the ‘depth of winter’ Victorian Christmas cards and hymns and carols just didn’t seem appropriate as our only music – we still sing them but also we sing also hymns that reflect our reality, this also from Shirley Murray:  Carol our Christmas, an upside down Christmas; snow is not falling and leaves are not bare......  Sing of the gold and the green and the sparkle, water and river and lure of the beach.  Sing in the happiness of open spaces, sing a nativity summer can reach!
And then there is finding words that have meaning for us as New Zealanders.  Writing hymns that express our understanding of God, that help us to sing joyfully to the Lord in a meaningful way.  Here are the words of a another hymn where kauri is a tall strong ancient tree, aroha is love and mana is the worth that we hold others in.      Where mountains rise to open skies, your name, O God, is echoed far, from island beach to kauri’s reach, in water’s light, in lake and star.    Your people’s heart, your people’s part be in our caring for this land, for faith to flower, for aroha to let each other’s mana stand.

Now some emerging thoughts on the part that music plays in our worship and our faith.  In NZ in the Presbyterian churches we have a variety of styles of music and sad to say singing (or even reading) psalms would be occasional at best.  We have choirs of differing kinds, we have music groups that lead with drums and guitars singing contemporary chorus music, we have strong congregational singing from various hymnarys, we have dance particularly from our Pacific Island churches,  and we have Taize and Iona music too.  All sorts.  We have problems with some folk not understanding the difference between performance and praise, (a worry of the Gaelic Psalm singers as their music becomes increasingly ‘popular’ in the secular world); we have differing opinions over which tune or verses or words are to be used.  We sing hymns where the theology is either outdated or quite flakey, we think that if only we can get the words right and a punchy tune then we will fill the church with young folk and it is always a balancing act with our combination of old and new. 
Yet, it is in the lifting of our voices in worship to God that all of these things seem to disappear – or fade at least – how many of you would have stories to tell of times when the music has just simply become the presence of God?  The times when we have allowed the praise and the joy and yes the lament to come from our hearts in our singing as we remember that we are never alone, that God is always with us, as we turn to face a new struggle and hold fast to Christ’s teaching to get us through,  as we know that we can and must sing the Lord’s song in our new lands what ever they might look like.  For you, for us, for Christians throughout the world and in all contexts let us continue to praise God with song and tune with all our hearts, for this is the good treasure with which we have been entrusted and that we carry with us wherever we go.

And to our God be all glory praise and honour – now and forever more.  Amen.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 21 August 2016 Pentecost 14

Readings: Isaiah 58:9b-14, Luke 13:10-17

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.

We have a phrase in our language – we talk about conversations or encounters where whatever is said just ‘passes us by’’ – conversational ships in the night – where we both think we are talking about the same thing but actually are on completely different subjects, at cross purposes.  The people that Isaiah are talking to are somewhat like that in their relationship with God.  If we look at the verses preceding the Old Testament reading we heard today, we find a genuinely bewildered people –‘why O God will you not draw near us when we do everything you ask of us?’ and a frustrated God – ‘you say you do this but in fact……’
The dialogue goes something like this:
God:  day after day they seek me as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.
People:  Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?
God: look, for a start, you serve your own interests on fast day – you quarrel and fight, this will not make your voice heard on high, why don’t you get it?  This is not what I ask of you…this is what you are to do if I am to hear you – stop pointing the finger, doing evil, trampling on the Sabbath, pursuing your own interests.

The people are genuinely bewildered at this charge of hypocrisy.  They do not see what they are doing wrong.

From the Hebrew scriptures, we learn that there are two type of emphasis on how it is that God’s people are to approach the Sabbath, the day of the sacred when all eyes are turned to God.  From Genesis and Exodus[1] we have the ordinance to bless and consecrate the Sabbath as a day of rest – the Lord rests from the work of creation therefore we too are to rest –refraining from working so we can contemplate and reflect and praise God. 
From Deuteronomy[2] we hear that we are to observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God
This complementary understanding, set in the light of deliverance from Egypt, commands the people to observe the day and keep it holy – in other words undertake a holy work
Relinquishing work for self and active holiness for God.
Keeping the Sabbath holy did not mean only resting but also doing the work of the kingdom – active holy practice on the Sabbath.
And that practice was around justice and service and caring for each other – doing the Lord’s work.  Through Isaiah, God told the people that by not living in active holiness, their worship and rituals were worse than nothing.  God and the people were talking past each other, neither in the same conversation.

In our Gospel reading the Pharisees too had bound up the Sabbath with rules for refraining from work and had lost sight of the Deuteronomy teaching – that of holy practice.
Hypocrisy was rife, rules were rigid, consequences were immediate.  How, Jesus asks them somewhat angrily, does your unwillingness to condone the healing of one of God’s chosen on the Sabbath fit with your remembrance and honouring of the liberation of God’s people from Egypt, of your understanding of active holiness?  Not at all.  More than that, you have made even these days of rest a place of bondage, where people’s wholeness and strength is constrained, diminished by your finicky rules, your lack of flexibility and compassion
Yet again the conversation that the people are having with God, where they think they have got it right, is missing the mark completely. 

Jesus here is pointing out their hypocrisy.  He is upset that they do not see suffering that this woman is under and are willing to place rules of rest above the need for healing and restoration.  This is not living in a meaningful and engaging relationship with God – this is witness gone wrong, he says.  And they themselves are living in bondage to the rules, unable to see that they have lost sight of a meaningful dynamic living out of God’s love.

How many of you have read C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce?[3]  I have – a long time ago.  In it a busload of people leave hell on a holiday to heaven. One of them, in her earthly life, was a washerwoman in Golder’s Green, wringing her livelihood from the soil of the clothing of those who hire her for a pittance.  In her life in the kingdom of God, she is herself clothed in a white gown and a tiara, with ladies holding her train and laughing in the bright sheen of God’s new day.  Most of the people who board the bus for their holiday in heaven, away from hell, instead of staying, choose to return to the lower world.  Bent on going back to hell, the return trip is difficult, because the journey requires them to find what is a very small crack in the expansive green pastures of the kingdom, and to travel back in a shrinking coach that crushes passengers into insufferably cramped quarters until they themselves grow small enough to have wide spaces between them.  The washerwoman, the crippled woman in Luke, however, chooses to stay on holiday, in the kingdom.

It is a sobering premise.  The smallness of self containment, blindness against the expansive freedom that is wholeness and healing in God. 

There are two parts to the Gospel story – the healing of the woman, a healing that leads immediately into praise and witness and the smallness and rigidity of the rule keepers, unable to see their own hypocrisy and their need for living in a vibrant full relationship with God.

And it seems that the question to us is equally pointed.  Do we live in well meaning but unfaithful hypocrisy, turning people away, comfort our priority, immersed in our ownness, overwhelmed by our business and captured by our regulations?
Or are we aware of our need to be on the same page as Jesus, to have our conversations with God focussed on that which brings the kingdom to pass, that which allows us to witness to the love of God in active holiness as well as Sabbath rest?

What might this look like? 

Well when we listen for and hear the voice of God, a voice strong enough to tell us when we are getting it wrong, as we inevitably do, we are constantly assessing our witness against the teachings of Jesus, not so much slipping into that place of hypocrisy, where our living does not reflect the teaching we purport to follow.

We are better able to see how to live into and beyond our limits.   To neither attempt to do that which is not asked of us nor to be held back from that which God asks us to be in faith.

We are open to and aware of the many rhythms of community and conversation, moving always to the drums of justice and compassion, service and holy action in our obedience to the love of God.

We welcome nurturing and prodding rather than contentment and smallness.  We find our gifts and abilities and be encouraged to live them to the full in Jesus name, knowing when it is time for sacred rest and sacred activity.

We place substance above form, compassion above unfeeling rules, people above empty ritual and God above all.

And when we do this – allowing our conversations, our relationships with God and each other to connect and flourish in the one understanding of obedient love, that is where we would be with the crowd, rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing in the world and our lives.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.
Margaret Garland

[1] Genesis 2:2-3, Exodus 20: 8-11
[2] Deuteronomy 5: 12-15
[3] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 7 August 2016 Pentecost 12

Readings:  Isaiah 1:1,10-20,  Luke 12: 32-40

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.

I want to begin with a story from Mitch Albom, in his book ‘Have a Little Faith[1]’ where he meets with a Rabbi who has asked him to do his eulogy when he dies –this is a quote from one of Rabbi Albert Lewis’ sermon
“A man seeks employment on a farm.  He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer.  It reads simply, ‘He sleeps in a storm.’
The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man.  Several weeks pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley.
Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed.  He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly.
So he dashes off to the barn.  He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed.
He runs out to the field.  He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins.
He races to the silo.  The doors are latched, and the grain is dry.
And then he understands.  ‘He sleeps in a storm’.
My friends, says the Rabbi, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our faith, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business.  Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight.  We will never wallow in the agony of ‘I could have, I should have…’
We can sleep in a storm.
And when it is time our goodbyes will be complete.”

What is it that God requires of us in our living? How are we to be ready for the unexpected coming?

These are the questions for continually asking if we are genuine about following the way of Jesus.  These were questions that formed part of the Parish Council retreat last Saturday as we explored our life in this church and this community.  Our readiness as the people of God!

Being prepared.  Watchful waiting – just what does this mean for us?

First of all, in the reading, Jesus assures us of the presence of God in our lives and the world.  The kingdom of God is no future possibility – is now and it is certain.  It is the promise that allows us to live life on the edge – to take risks and to be bold in our living.  It is also the promise that holds us when things go wrong and where we can’t see round the looming corner. God is our treasure, our very heart and in God we trust.
Then Jesus encourages us to be ready and dressed for action for we do not know the when or the where of the coming of the one who is the master? But not the master in the sense they know it – but the one who come and turns lives upside down, who serves them and blesses them. 
It would be simplistic to think that we are capable of 24/7 vigilance, looking always to what is to come and not be involved and engaged in what is.  We would wear ourselves out, sleepless, always on the alert for the door.  Doing nothing so that we can always be ready to do something.  That doesn’t feel right either.  People can get fixated about the coming of the kingdom – Jesus preaches that it is already here and we are to be involved.  And he gives heaps of teachings about how that is to look throughout the Gospels – all to show us how to be rich towards God - now.

Being dressed and ready for action is, for me, about being alert to the presence of God in every single thing that we do and be, part of our dna as Christians.  The whole of life is an abundant gift from a generous God – and our then giving that gift to others is to be done with generous abandon and in trust.

So talking about success and 24/7 fixation and failure as sleeping on the job I don’t find particularly helpful here.  Rather we can examine the ways in which we can be alert to the voice of God, the teachings of Jesus, the guidance of the Spirit in our lives so that we see things we might not have seen before, heard things differently, been equipped for the unexpected, or as David Schlafer said ‘position ourselves to be surprised.’

And what is it that equips us to be alert in this way?
First of all – worship – not just as a set of rituals that need doing each week, as the text from Isaiah describes, but as an awed and candid engagement with God that is life-giving, community transforming and world altering.  Reminding ourselves of the promise of God, of the power of the love to transform us and the world, of the need to engage and praise and be delighted at God’s abundant generosity.  Do we allow worship to speak into our alertness and readiness for whatever might come our way?

Then there is the community that we are part of – a community to rest in, one that restores and builds up and encourage and cares?  Learning that sense of belonging, of welcome in all our diversity and difference is one of the most powerful foundations from which we can venture forth into the unknown and deal with the unexpected.  Sharing our concerns, knowing that even in our distress we are loved is incredibly precious and empowering.  And it is in this community that we can then tackle when we are in sleep mode or doing things that are abhorrent to God – as did Isaiah - when we are getting it wrong, we are to argue it out, discern what is good and what is evil and walk that path.

And we are to actively and creatively grow in faith and understanding – our personal journeys, the disciplines of prayer and engagement with scripture and the doing of God’s work.  For it is there that we so often meet the Christ, in the silence and listening of prayer, in studying the words and acts of Jesus, in the reflections of those who have gifts of interpretation and creative understanding, and finally in the moments of absolute gifting that is being the work of God in the world.  

So as we gather around the table today, sharing the bread and wine as one people, may we trust in God’s promise of the riches of the kingdom and may we draw Christ deeply into our hearts so that in our going from here we might be equipped and alert for travelling in the way of Jesus, whatever comes our way.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] ‘Have a Little Faith: a True Story’ by Mitch Albom. Hatchett Books, 2009

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 17th July Pentecost 9 and Prayers of Intercession

Readings: Psalm 52, Luke 10:38-42

Let us pray:  Holy God, may your word for us be truly heard and may we hear challenge, new beginnings and assurance of your love and grace.  In Jesus name Amen.

Are we a listening people?
At a meeting last week we were asked to carry out this exercise – get into pairs and one of you speak for seven minutes (some of us have less trouble with that than others) and the other was to listen – not to respond in any way, no nodding, no encouraging smile, no facial response and certainly no verbal interruptions.  It was a challenge and virtually impossible to not respond even in the most positive way.  But the point was to get us to think about listening well so that we may hear God’s voice both in our hearts and in the encounters with those around us.

In the words of Tom Gordon:[1]
To listen and not to speak.
To hear, and not to interrupt.
To pay attention, and need to respond.
To take note, and not write anything down.
To concentrate, and not miss what is important.
To be silent, and not cut a story short.
To accept, and not try to clarify.
To wait, and not be tired of waiting.
To be still, and not expect anything else to matter.
O God, how hard it is,
And yet, how important……

How important indeed – the silence that is needed for the words to have meaning and the meaning to enter our heart. 

In the Gospel story today Jesus said: ‘Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
This story of the two sisters is, we could say, about the different approaches to how we honour God and serve Jesus best. For this was the dilemma at the heart of the tale of Mary and Martha and it will, I expect, speak to us in different ways.  There will be those who completely get where Martha is coming from, frustrated at all the work still to do, wanting to sit down and listen but wanting to be the best of hosts.  And how it rankles when someone else doesn’t have the same priorities, leaves the dishes on the bench for later and chooses to be part of the company instead.  Out comes the words, somewhat pointed, sharp, a wee bit whiney.  “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work – tell her to come and help!’
For Martha was the host, the doer, the person of action – a very important role and not taken lightly in those times: there was a hankering to be still and listen but not until the work was done.
And then there was Mary – according to Martha the taker, the selfish one – Mary was a listener, a student, one who saw the importance of hearing the teachings of Jesus and was willing to forgo what was expected of her – because she had decided where she needed to be – and it wasn’t helping her sister. That will be just so right for some of us, the ones who don’t want to get waylaid by the metaphorical housekeeping when there is something so much better to do.

For Mary has chosen the better part says Jesus.  Important though the doing is, we all need to take time to be the Mary of the story, putting the teachings of Jesus before the carrying out of the tasks that honour him; knowing why it is that we do and for what purpose has the edge on the doing.

You see I think that David was on to this – that he knew that it was only by anchoring himself in God, listening to the voice of God, being guided by God in his life choices that he would avoid the self serving piety and deceitful living of Doeg. We know David didn’t get it right all the time but he had some kind of moral compass (unlike Doeg) – whom he freely acknowledged was God.  He likens that sense of being able to anchor in God as being like an olive tree - not easily displaced when we are rooted in God, with God’s light nourishing us and God’s water sustaining us.  David safely puts his trust in God, turns his ear to God and so can walk in God’s way.

Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her. 
Let us dig down a bit deeper into this.
First of all let us not forget Martha. Jesus was not responding with his comments to the busy Martha but rather to the worried and distracted Martha. He speaks as to a dear friend (Martha, Martha) who is fussing over bits that don’t need worrying about and missing out on something important. Jesus did not say that this stopping and listening was all that we should do – but rather that this is essential to our doing.  And for sure there would have been other times when Mary’s lack of action would have been inappropriate and criticism of her sitting around justified, and Martha would have been the lynch pin and seen as such.  It is safe to say that there will forever be a struggle between word and deed, the speaker and the doer, the contemplative and the activist for that is the nature of who we are as human beings.   The important thing is that we need to be alert to the situation that we are in and respond accordingly, and to never assume either posture to the point of preoccupation or ideology.  Activism without contemplation ends in aimless doing and sometimes dangerous conclusions.  Thought alone, however, can also be dangerous – for where we theologically debate and discuss and study without life experience and the learning that comes from serving, then we are equally able to delude ourselves as to the purpose of God for us.
In fact this Gospel reading is about knowing when we need to be Martha and when Mary.  Discerning when we are being too much of one and not enough of the other.  But remembering that we first need to listen before we do.

Another thought here. We are to listen so that we not just comprehend the teachings of Jesus and live them out but also so that we can find the words to communicate God’s word to others – how sad that we have come to think that only those with ‘qualifications’ should interpret and share the word.  How sad that we think that theology is something written in books and debated at the highest academic level.  Certainly it is that, but is also you and me continually sitting at the feet of Jesus seeking to know his way.

Here is a thought too.  Does Jesus remind us of the meaning of the word hospitality in this passage?   That we can sometimes as a church get distracted by the many projects and programmes and activities that we feel are needed and forget to recognise that the source of all hospitality is Jesus and that deeds without the word are meaningless.  Whereas if we stop to listen to the words of Jesus, the promptings of the Spirit then those deed will flow out of a conviction and a hope rather than a timetable.

I also wonder how much the cultural expectation of the role of the women of the time informs this story.  Not only was Mary disrupting Martha’s expectations, there would have been some raised eyebrows that a woman would choose to a) avoid her role and b) sit down with the men.  There is a sense in which Mary was doing her bit for the right of women to be part of the listening and learning and discerning.  So you go Mary!  Right behind you there.

And finally, back to what we were talking about at the beginning: it is not just about engaging in conversation with God and each other as we seek to know Jesus Christ – it is about listening to what is being said.  And that takes some trust and some effort on our part. It is easy just to let the words flow over us as a well known and beloved scripture, it is also easy to get overwhelmed with words, to find it easy to distrust the use of words, but if we are able to listen closely, with discernment, we will hear what is actually being said sometimes despite the words.

So let us make sure that we stop and listen to God, let us hear the teachings of Jesus, and wait on the guidance of the Spirit in a ways that allows us to be the best, most deeply rooted, well nourished and fruitful olive trees in all the world here in Opoho  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession 17 July 2016

Let us Pray

We thank you Lord for plenty and sometimes even luxury
We thank you Lord for warmth and shelter and home
We thank you Lord for health and wellbeing
We thank you Lord for happiness, for joy, for content
We thank you Lord for security, for courage, and for belonging
We thank you Lord for freedom and a place in our community

We are blessed to be here, in this time, in this place, among these people

We pray for men, women and children who are hungry and poor
We pray for people who are cold and exposed
We pray for those who are sick, exhausted, mentally ill, disabled
We pray for men, women and children who are sad, depressed, or grieving
We pray for those who are at a loss, afraid, or anchorless
We pray for people who are imprisoned, alone, hopeless

With our prayers, we place them in the palm of your hand

It is time to stop telling hungry people that they should work harder, instead let us bake bread
It is time to stop telling cold people to find somewhere else, instead let us knit blankets
It is time to stop telling sick people to get better, instead let us bring medicine
It is time to stop telling sad people to cheer up, instead let us sing to them
It is time to stop telling scared people to be brave, instead let us wrap our arms around them
It is time to stop telling captive people to have hope, instead let us release them

We have been granted so much, Lord, let us stop judging and start giving of your plenty, in sympathetic generosity and knowing in our hearts that all people are your people

And we sing…The Lord’s Prayer

Abby Smith

[1] Tom Gordon.  A Blessing to Follow Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2009

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10 July 2016 Pentecost 8

Readings:  Amos 7:7-15,   Luke 10:25-37

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

Sitting at my desk Friday afternoon, getting on a bit of a roll with Amos and Samaritans, procrastinating a bit as is my want by flicking across into Stuff – and then I read about the shooting of 11 people at a protest rally in Dallas – four/five dead.  Those shot were police who were presumably keeping an eye on a protest ‘black lives matter’ rally about the shooting of innocent black people by police.  Words fail.  Hatred rules. Lives ripped apart.  What is going on?

Those of us reading through the books of the bible have struggled with the violence and hatred of the time but we have to honestly ask if our time is any different from that say of two and a half thousand years ago.

Then as now there is mindless violence.
Then as now there is retribution.
Then as now there is the slaughtering of the innocents.
Now and then there is greed and a protection of self whatever it takes.
Or, here is a thought:
Now and then that is all that seems to make the headlines.

And that got me thinking.  Then and now the world, life is not all about horrible stuff, there are stories of hope and kindness and compassion.  In first and second Kings there are stories of peace and gentleness and justice – it’s just that they are few and far between, rarely reported.  Today there are remarkable and everyday stories of neighbourliness and compassion and forgiveness.  They just don’t seem to make the headlines.
And I had to ask the question if we, as a society, have a propensity to wallow in the horror stories and respond as I did with a complete loss of perspective and a sense of a black hole that the world has gone down. 

Do we allow our headlines to feed our fears and does the new global communication world we live in encourage our despair. 

Blogger Jeremy Spain thinks so - in a piece titled ‘A small God in a big world’[1] he reminds us that Jesus came not as a headline act but as a baby, that the deluge of what is wrong with the world doesn’t give us much space to contemplate what is right: he says
 “Imagine how different the world must have been even 100 years ago. Imagine how much bigger and more mysterious the world must have been without Google Maps and Google Earth, without Buzzfeeds that reduce our ever-shrinking ordinary world to a series of tragic headlines and newsfeeds that reduce our ever-expanding social world to a series of one-way conversations 140 characters-deep and 10,000 friends-wide. Imagine what it must have felt like to not feel like you are at the center of every event and every relationship on earth. Imagine a world with board games and the great big woods outback. Imagine what it would feel like to be as small as a human being…..
 You’d almost think the highest point of our nation’s freedom, that of its speech, is now being used to paralyze us. It’s like the headlines that feed us the bad news of the world have left us no room to speak about anything else, anything less important than politics or less complicated than the economy or less alarming than proofs of the immanent threat of radical Islam. How inconsiderate it would be to speak needlessly about the daylilies beginning to bloom outside with all that other stuff happening outside…”
He restates the answer to the question: 
Q: “When did we see you hungry and feed you and thirsty and give you drink?”
A: “When you didn’t see me on a screen and when you gave me more than your opinions.”

Let’s think about the good Samaritan story –  even without the advantage of the world wide web, the bad press for the Samaritans had done its business – they were despised foreigners, with a faith that had developed differently and were not to be trusted let alone associated with.  Samaritan was the shock word that Jesus used to tell this story of what it means to be a neighbour – even the lawyer wasn’t quite able to say Samaritan when asked to identify the neighbour – he skirted the issue by saying ‘the one who showed him mercy’.  Nowadays some could equally say insert the word Muslim or Asian or Sikh – and what has the western Christian world overtly despised for two thousand years - Jews.  Different, despised, responsible for all that is wrong with our world……..easy to demonize.

But actually, says Jesus – we can’t do that.  For kindness shows us who acts as a neighbour, not culture nor faith nor nationality – but kindness and compassion.
And our kindness is personal, relational, small in the scheme of things and unlikely to make the headlines.
It can come from the most unlikely of people, be shared into the scariest of places and it is not to be refused because we think someone unworthy or ‘different’.

So let’s not be undone by the violence and hatred and inhumanity that we can drown in in the world today.  Let us instead practice what it is that we are made to be – the loving people of God walking in the way of Jesus.  ‘Let us live in a world close enough to touch, low enough to look in the eye’; says Jeremy Spain. He reminds us that God speaks in a still small voice, not with a foghorn, and a still small voice require physical nearness to be heard. 
We can lose ourselves in caring for the things we can do nothing about and not see the neighbour over the fence who is in need.
We can despair at making a difference to a world that seems to be imploding and forget the teaching of Jesus that from a small seed of love expressed, amazing things can happen.  Each little act of compassion has the capacity to turn the world on its head.  Believe it!

So instead of being overwhelmed by the state of the world, let us focus on being who Jesus tells us to be - a good neighbour, getting to know those around us, offering and receiving a helping hand and building relationships with all manner of people, even those, especially those whom society would have us cross the road away from  – for it is there that we will find God at work in our world.

We finish with words from Brian Wren

We are your people, Spirit of grace,
you dare to make us to all our neighbours,
Christ’s living voice, hands and face.

Spirit, unite us, make us, by grace,
willing and ready, Christ’s living body,
loving the whole human race.

Margaret Garland