Saturday, 30 January 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 31 January, 2016 Epiphany 4

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10,  Luke 4:21-30

Let us pray:  Ever faithful God, you know our hearts, our hopes and despairs, our uncertainties and our sureties.  Open us all to your radical grace as we listen for your word to us, each one of us and as your church.  Amen.

One thing that strikes me time and time again is how incredibly complex good communication is.  And in a world now reasonably dedicated to non face-to-face communication, we would have to ask  how much nuance and understanding is lost when you can’t see the facial expression or the body language that accompanies the words.  No wonder emoticons are needed –even if they are limited.  Did you see that Facebook is about to launch 5 additional options to the ‘like’ button – we are also allowed to be angry, sad, wow, haha and love.
But the thing is that even being in the same room, listening intently to each other, does not guarantee any kind of perfect understanding of conversation either.  Because we bring each individually our own experience and particular pre-loading if you like interpretations of a statement made can vary widely.  But all the same we would hope to have more chance of understanding when we are in the same room and are listening.
But if I had been one of those people sitting listening to Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth that day I might have wondered if I had dozed off for a moment, missed something somehow or that his or our communication skills needed some serious work.
Because we were genuinely thrilled at the wisdom and hope that this boy that we all knew growing up brought to us this day.  Is this not Joseph’s son, we said.  It wasn’t meant as a put down, it was a statement of wonder.
And what did we get from Jesus in response – it wasn’t terribly fair on his part – we hadn’t said anything, or expected miracles – he just assumed what we would say and what we would want. What right did he have to get stuck into us like that?

I continue to be amazed at the depth and capacity of scripture to engage us, even today.  Each reading a new question, a different perspective to the words and actions of Jesus.

So what was with this abrupt and less than gracious response that Jesus had to the people in his home town, and why tell them in one breath that the prophecy was fulfilled and in the next that they were likely to be shut out, considered unworthy?

I think that Graeme touched on one of the reasons last week – that the words of Jesus after he sat down and as he expounded on the reading were absolute dynamite – jaw dropping stuff that would have been completely outside their experience – ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’.  It would have taken time to assimilate I am sure.
But they didn’t really get that time.  It sounds as if Jesus then went on to pretty much demolish their delight – quoting the instances of the prophets working well outside of the faithful Israel, bringing healing and sustenance to the foreigner instead of the chosen people.

But maybe he knew them better than they knew themselves.  Maybe in their hearts they were rubbing hands and saying ‘Great, it is happening – how lovely - and we didn’t have to do anything!’  Maybe he knew that a short sharp shock was needed to make a difference in their attitudes, their behaviours.
Maybe Jesus sensed their infinite capacity for receiving as the assured and chosen people of God and wanted to jolt them into a new understanding of the breadth and depth that ministry in his name might take.  That there would be unexpected directions, all-encompassing promise, and (here’s the tricky one) a call on the heart of every person who believed to, as James Davis said: ‘witness to the gospel by investing with radical grace whatever worldly roles God opens to us.[1]

This was Jeremiah’s problem was it not?  God had called him to a particular role, that of prophet to the nations, and Jeremiah was dragging his heels, sure that he was unfit for the task.  Grace was in absentia and Jeremiah’s idea of what he was capable of differed from the possibilities that God saw in him.  He was soon talked round – not a lot of room for discussion really – but he illustrates an approach to ministry that is still constraining us today. 

Jeremiah didn’t see himself as equipped for ministry – God’s response is that of a deep knowing before he was born – a vocation before we have proven our skills at it.  This doesn’t mean that we are therefore left ill equipped for our role but that in our living we have gathered skills to live out our potential if only we would have the courage and trust to do so.
Today for us we have established for whatever reason a bit of a mind-set that suggests we have to be trained properly to participate in ministry.  Well yes and no.  We all, ordained or not, need to be learning and growing in both our faith and our ability to live that faith out.  If that is training yes.  And the reformed church does put a welcome and strong emphasis on education – but not just for a select few – for all.  Ministry is for all.  I was asked at a Knox Centre Retreat at the end of last year to provide some devotions around the thought that it takes a whole church to raise a minister – and we ended up saying ‘it takes a whole church to offer ministry’.  It may not be that everyone can preach a sermon but all have skills in their own way to witness to the radical grace of God in their lives.

Jeremiah might have looked back to someone like Isaiah and compared himself unfavourably, seeing the other as perfect and himself as flawed.  No doubt they were two very different people – Isaiah you could almost say appeared to be of heroic stature – determined, focussed, accepting of his role.  Jeremiah’s doubts and sense of inadequacy continued throughout his ministry – but what he did have was the sense that God would and did equip him for whatever was needed and so he could witness to God in this role with strength and courage.  And I would bet if you could ask the question of Isaiah he too would speak of doubts and uncertainties and anxieties that plagued him throughout his considerable ministry
Sometimes I hear other people preach and just feel like I might as well zip it for the foreseeable future – just as I have heard say guitarists hear someone phenomenally skilled playing and think that they should just chop off their fingers – metaphorically of course.  Yet how are we to learn to articulate our faith, share our journey but by sometimes halting words and unsure actions – and who wants someone perfect anyway?  And it is not about having a certain level of skill before we can start – its about not being afraid to share what skill we have – trusting in a God who has known us before we were shaped in the womb to equip us in every situation.

And lastly, Jeremiah would have carried on arguing, we do that quite well don’t we, but God touched him in way that left the words unspoken, that encouraged him to submit to the task given him and to trust in the presence of God with him.
Interesting word that isn’t it – submit?  In conversation with a friend during the week we happened upon the word submission – realised that although the gut reaction is that the word infers unfair subjugation, and that verse in Ephesians about wives submitting to husbands particularly, it is actually about recognising that God’s mission is a force to which we submit.  Our problem is when groups of people declare themselves to be the mission to which others should submit.  Quite a difference there isn’t there.  So Jeremiah submitted to the role that God called him to in ministry, still doubting his abilities, unsure of his capacity, and certainly thinking others could be better at this – and he went out and prophesied.

And so the question for us is:  what worldly role is it that we are called to embrace with radical grace?  Is it to speak of our belief, certain that we don’t have all the answers, is it to act into need, pretty sure that we will feel inadequate at some stage, is it to speak out about unjust practices, knowing that we will be challenged by alternative viewpoints, and is it to embrace those whose difference scares us, knowing that God is with us and also with them.  This is ministry for the people of God - all of us.

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’[2]  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 1 p.292
[2] Jeremiah 1:5

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 17th January, 2016 Epiphany 2

Readings: Psalm 36:5-10, John 2:1-11

Let us pray:  May all that we hear in heart and mind challenge, assure and encourage us to respond in faith in Jesus name.  Amen

On Friday night we hosted a pot luck for some of our friends from the folk club to welcome other friends who had just moved to Dunedin.  And I was getting worried that there wouldn’t be enough meat for the main – so I whipped out a bag of sausages and quickly cooked them.  Heaven forbid that in our house we might not have enough food on the table.  I suspect many of us have had just that same conundrum – worried about our hospitality – that it be sufficient for everyone to relax and enjoy themselves.

The hosts of the wedding at Cana were about to have a major hospitality melt down.  The wine, yes the wine had run out.  And Mary, mother of Jesus, was concerned for them – she was only a guest – she didn’t have to be involved – she could have simply joined probably all the other guests who would have gone away grumbling, indignant at the lack of hospitality and not going there again. 
But she didn’t.  She intervened, wanting to save the celebration from disaster.

This story of the turning of the water into wine is known as the first of the miracles – in John’s Gospel set just after Jesus’ baptism and just before his clearing of the outrages in the temple.  And yet is seems it so nearly didn’t happen.  His response to his mother’s nudging to act was reluctant to say the least – ‘Why do you ask this of me?  My time has not yet come.’   Our natural reaction to this apparently throw away, disrespectful by our standards, response to his mother can sidetrack our reaction to this passage – it has for me.  But this time I think that it doesn’t throw Mary at all.  I can almost see he eyebrow going up just a smidgeon – and she immediately turns to the servants and says ‘Do as he says’.  She doesn’t harangue or plead – it is as if she simply expects that he will do what is needed without further prodding. 
You see I think that Mary absolutely understands Jesus response – ‘my time is not yet come’.  She get that the cross is in front of Jesus – that all will be revealed, that the Messianic promise will be fulfilled – but not yet.  But it doesn’t stop her from doing something now.  She, a disciple as well as mother, lives into the now and not yet with absolute composure.  She awaits, but she also does as she waits.
And there is a sense where she won’t let Jesus stand on the sideline either – she has told him of the need – and she most confidently expects him to deal with it.
This Mary is a bit of a revelation – not just in her seemingly secure relationship with her adult son, but also in her living out just what discipleship is about.
She recognised that she was part of the fulfilment of the promise that God had made – that standing on the sidelines waiting was of no use to anybody, that we each of us need to demonstrate and live out God with us now. 
And in insisting that something could be done – just think about the impact on the others in this story. 
There were the servants – they knew Jesus had done something but didn’t really understand what it was until they saw the reaction of the steward and then of the bridegroom.  The steward and the bridegroom in their turn, unknowingly benefitted from the act of Jesus and the advocacy that Mary brought to the situation.  And we tend to forget about the third group – those who were already committed to following Jesus, now further impressed by this sign of power and miracle.
Mary’s attentiveness and her instinctive response to people in need had a wide and powerful impact on many people.  You could say that in her act of intercession, Mary, mother of God, reminded God of who God is.

And it lays that same challenge before us today. To not be standing on the sidelines, secure in our faith and waiting for the fulfilment of God’s kingdom.  Rather we are the people of the promise in the now, acting into the hurts and deprivations and injustices that we not just bump into but that we are alert for all around us.
I suspect that the problem for us in not that we will act, because I think that we do that well, but that we will actually see the need in the first place.  Our care for each other can sometimes be stymied by a culture that has encouraged privacy to a degree where we are not sure we have a right to be involved, that has dumbed down our people skills so that we expect all people to think or respond as we do and we are allowed to be miffed at the first sign of difficulty.  A culture that has long put self above community and problems as ours to deal with doesn’t, to my way of thinking, encourage community care and interaction in any meaningful way.  And let’s face it we have the other extreme too – people who refuse to understand that there are any boundaries at all or alternatively don’t know how to listen for what is actually required of them.  I saw an example a little while ago of someone getting quite cross with people who were genuinely wanting to help them but were not reading the need nor hearing the response which was not what they thought was best.  So we really do have to be light on our feet when we seek to engage and be of service and help to others.  If it was just turning water into wine – no problems – but in reality we need eyes to not only see the need but also to be the help that people need rather than the answer we think they need.

But there is another part to this story too.  And that is what happened when the wine – far better than that which had already been served – was put on the table.  Let’s not get sidelined by our current concerns with too much alcohol being served and explore the act in its context.  
Within this rather spare narrative is a gesture of great extravagance – not just wine of moderate vintage but superior wine, not just feasting for a limited time but for as long as was needed.  Celebration, togetherness, God’s generosity in which we rest. 

Are we forever aware of the words of the psalmist? 
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 
They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. 
For with you is the fountain of life;[1]

Do we hold a balance in our faith of, on the one hand, the seriousness and responsibility of being the active people of Christ in the world and, on the other hand, the joy and celebration of simply being held secure in the arms of God, under the wing of God or whatever that image might be for you.
What does that gathering of the people of God look like for us when the metaphorical wine is flowing and we can enjoy simply being in the presence of God, together?  When we gather on Sundays I think we celebrate well being together – and that is not just in laughter and joy and praise but also in silence and those moments that come upon us where we are deeply aware of the sense of God in us and with us.
When we gather does the oneness of whose we are celebrate the diversity that we bring to this community of faith?  I believe so – most of the time anyway.  And does it shine out to those who might come as strangers, first timers to this place?  Do we move so that there is room for all who seek to shelter under God’s wing or make sure that there are more chairs added to the table for all who wish to join the celebration?

To finish, the small trouble with metaphor is that they each need to be held in tension with others or we find ourselves unbalanced in our life of faith.  Being secure under the wing, together at the table celebrating our faith and ensuring that we act into the need we meet, where the water is turned into wine for all people are not meant to be exclusive either/ors (although they might be at some stages in our lives) – they are both who we are to be, the now and the not yet, the action in the midst of the waiting.
Living constantly in only one of these outpourings of faith will, in the end, diminish our perception of the needs of both ourselves and of the community we live in.
Living into both the celebration of being the people of God and the grace filled acts of love and compassion to all whom we encounter is living the life of the disciple of Christ Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Psalm 36:7-9a

Monday, 11 January 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10 January, 2016 Epiphany 1

Readings:  Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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

It was a turbulent time in Jerusalem – this new sect causing all kinds of disruption, making extraordinary claims about this man they called Jesus the Christ, the Pentecost day that set the town in a uproar and changed lives forever, the prison breakout that wasn’t, the establishment who responded the only way they knew how – with accusation and threat and imprisonment, the stoning of Stephen, the fanatical Saul dragging suspects from their homes, a scattered community daring to continue to share the good news of Christ with the world. 
And so Philip, one of the seven along with Stephen commissioned by the Apostles to look after the needy (our first deacons perhaps), went to Samaria to proclaim the word.  And he baptised all those who believed including Simon the magician.
Peter and John, hearing of the response to the word in Samaria too cam and, by prayer and the laying on of hands, opened the people to the power of the Spirit.
This little passage in Acts, set in the midst of other complex, detailed and dramatic events, is hugely significant. 
By evangelising Samaria, Philip transgresses the boundaries of race and religion, and Peter and John, by also coming to the ‘despised’ people, validate completely their belonging as full and equal members of the Christian church by the receiving of the Spirit through those who are leaders.
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[1]

In baptism, all people are created equal and are to be treated equally.  In the transforming power of baptism by water and the spirit, we are to be one people across all boundaries of ethnicity, culture and ideology.  The Christian church should be the most seamlessly integrated community on earth?  Yet we are not.  We fight and bicker and find ways to diminish and disregard those who we believe are second class citizens.  Age, gender, socio-economic status, race, belief are all used to make some less than others in the body of Christ. 
Yet Ruth Duck, in her book ‘Finding Words for Worship’ suggests that the primary characteristic of the Holy Spirit is to forge unity among the baptised and the not yet baptised in the midst of cultural, ethnic and ideological difference and tension. 

So it follows that our understanding of baptism is somewhat flawed if we use it as a reason to divide or create inequality within the body.  I wonder if part of the problem is that often we see baptism as a stand-alone event, a moment in time, rather than as part of the ongoing journey of faith – a journey that is made in relationship with the Holy Spirit and alongside repentance and forgiveness.  It makes it difficult for us to continuously explore our relationship with each other if we think we have, by an act of commitment, done all we need to do in our response to God’s call.  Baptism is to be a living breathing commitment to the body of Christ, where all are one.

What are the implications for us here today?  What are the ways that we maintain or create inequality today?
To answer that maybe we need to look briefly to our past and how we perpetuate some of these historical mistakes or, alternatively, how can we change the way we divide and deprive?

On the Sojourners website, Jim Wallis in an excerpt from his latest book ‘America’s Original Sin’ would suggest – and these are his words:  “…the political and economic problems of race are ultimately rooted in a theological problem.  The churches have too often ‘baptized us’ into our racial divisions, instead of understanding how our authentic baptism above and beyond our racial identities.” He goes on to say “if white Christians in America were ready to act more Christian than white when it comes to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children”.
We look at the first encounters between Christian and the tangata whenua here in Aotearoa – some came as brother and sister, God’s people together, and others as conquerors and exploiters.  John and other historians can tell us the realities of the coming of Christianity to this country and the struggle of those who recognised the oneness of the body against those who did not.  The institutional church has taken a long time to recognise and respect the approach of Maori to faith.  As has much of the church throughout the world as it shared the gospel message in the colonial era .

How did women get to be so excised from the church hierarchy, and how did the power of life and death get into the hands of so few.  How did we get to a point that we exclude people because of their sexuality and dismiss people who do not think as we do?  Where has the oneness and equality of the people of God gone we have to ask.  And, more importantly, what are we doing to perpetuate these imbalances?  This needs a lecture series not a sermon – so here are just some of my thoughts.

Since you know I am probably going to talk about it anyway let’s start with language.
I will not apologise for changing words that are blatantly ignoring half of the human race. 
A well known hymn written in the 1950’s ‘ With God as our Father, brothers all are we…’  - I don’t think so and easily changed to ‘and family all are we’.
And much more importantly hymns are still being written today that use this language of exclusion – not good enough.  Mind you we could say there are some places where it lets women off the hook completely. A songwriter who is conscious of gender inequalities in hymn writing speaks of an attempt to change the words of one hymn that women are probably happy to be omitted from – ‘Through the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see’ – but the trouble was it was changed to ‘through the eye made blind by sin thy glory may not see’ – frying pan into the fire really for that version says that disabilities result from someone’s sin.  
But we can’t fix every perceived slight for all people, and we must acknowledge words were of their time and mostly meant for oneness when they were written.  It’s a minefield really.
But it’s not just the hymns.  Every time we use the words in our liturgy we have to think of the meaning and impact.  When we pray do we demand or intercede?  When we confess do we reduce ourselves to quivering piles of sin and when we praise do we use words that separate us, distance us from a God who is both mystery and friend .
We had an example of how important this is recently.  I may have said to some of you -  before Christmas we had someone here who hadn’t been to church for a long time, who said after the service that during worship they waited in vain for the words and concepts and claims that always got them bristling and angry and excluded.  Always before they had felt sidelined.  In consequence we had a deep and exciting discussion about faith and God.   We won’t always get it right for all but we can try.

How about differing ideologies?  Fine that we have them of course but how do we view those who do not think as we do?  Within the church recently at least we don’t have a great track record of respecting other’s viewpoints which differ from ours – in fact we often attempt to impose our view on others.  And not just tolerate but engage – God comes to us in many guises and asks us to continually reform our faith and our understandings.  It is the views of others that help us do this, is it not?  Do you know the Bishop of Wellington recently demonstrated that he understands Presbyterianism way better than many within our denomination when he said in a Listener article about his view on same sex marriage:  ‘My view is to help the Anglican Diocese of Wellington come to a point where we can live together with our different views.  We need to find a way forward to live with diversity of opinion.’ He went on to say that his personal view was less important that ensuring respect for all opinion.   
And so we ask as we contemplate those things that might perpetuate inequality in the oneness of the body of Christ: does the homeless person receive judgement before welcome, the unemployed censure before gift, the immigrant required to show suitable thankfulness before acceptance?
Does the person of another culture have something to offer us or is it a one way street?  Will we adapt our long held traditions to include the ways of others, or step outside our comfort zone to welcome in the stranger? 
Do we honour our children and our elders and have patience with the newcomer and forbearance with the challenging who are part of our family
People in churches today experience a wide variety of faith experiences – we live a life of unpredictable  spiritual growth – let us celebrate this, not deny it, as we continue to live out our baptism as the lifelong experience of clothing ourselves with Christ and becoming one as the body of Christ Jesus in the celebration of our amazing diversity. Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Galatians 3:27-28

Service of Worship Sunday 13 December, 2015 7pm Opoho Church ‘Blue Christmas’

Please remain seated throughout the service.  There will be times of silence, of prayer, of music and of words.  Feel free to sit quietly at the end for as long as you wish and also to join us for supper afterwards.  This is a time for all of us to reflect and to remember

Some of us are here tonight because we the way ahead is bleak and we’re not sure we can celebrate Christmas.  Some of us have experienced the brokenness and emptiness of loss - through death, or separation or divorce. Some of us have come to honour and remember those who have gone before us – to acknowledge with thanks the way in which their lives touched ours.  Some of us have come to find some space in the hectic whirlwind of shopping and parties and preparations and to be still before the God who came to be among us. And some of us have come to support those who are carrying heavy hearts at this time.
We are all here because Jesus invites us:
“Come to me all of you who carry heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”
We’ve come for rest, we’ve come for comfort, we’ve come for the courage to go on.
A moment of silence ……
Let us pray: God of love and understanding, we gather here this evening to confront our pain in the midst of the world’s celebration.  Help us to know that you are present with us in all our moods and feelings and seasons. Grant us a taste of the Hope, peace, love and joy that you promise to all your people through the gift of your son Jesus. Amen.

As we gather, I would like to share the insight of Christine Worsley[1], a woman who was spending her first Christmas without her mother, after a lifetime of Christmas’s together as a family. A prayer to acknowledge the contradictions of the season and to name the loss amidst the sometimes forced gaiety.

It was a time for mourning but instead we danced.
Out of step with the heavy beat of our hearts, we feigned a lightness of foot.
But the tune of our memories grew loud and strong, beckoning us to stop and name you;
to allow you to lead us in the slow rhythmic movements of grief outpoured.
It was a time for weeping but instead we laughed.  Hollow nonsense filled the air.  We smiled the smile of fools. 
But the river of your presence burst the banks of our folly and flowed through us, summoning us to bathe our wounds in the cleansing tears of absence named.
It was a time for silence but we spoke.
On and on, straining to fill the spaces.
But your whispered song of stillness caressed our discordant words, teaching us to wait, to be still and listen.
To know you, lovingly with us.  Amen

At advent it is traditional to light candles – let us do so now.

We light our first candle
a single light that the deepest darkness cannot conquer –
small – insignificant but a sign of hope.
Let it speak to us of the tiny flame of hope buried within us –
the stubborn little light that refuses to be extinguished
by all that life has thrown at it.
We light our second candle
a companion to the first –
equally small – equally insignificant –
but witnessing to hope that another light brings.
Let it speak to us of the lights of companionship –
of our families and our friends –
of strangers and kindnesses found in unexpected places
that restored our hope in human nature.
We light our third candle
recalling nights of watching and waiting – sleepless – anxious
when dawn seemed to ebb further from the horizon
and hope seemed forlorn.
Let it speak to us of the sureness of morning –
of the passing of darkness of suffering –
and the promise of an eternal sunrise
dawning for those we have loved and lost
and dawning too for us –
though we may yet be in that darkest hour before the dawn.

We light our fourth candle
marking the closing of the Advent season
and the immediacy of Christmas;
a time of peace and joy we may not ourselves feel able to welcome –
as our spirits dwell in dark and wintriness.
Let it speak to us of hope –
of being together in this place of healing and wholeness –
of our companionship this night at the turning of the year –
of faith that we and those we have loved and lost
are held eternally in the hand of the One who brought light into being –
and who knows each one of us by name.

Let us pray:
Creator God, lover of the universe,
we come to you in this quiet place
seeking your reassurance and your hope.
We come in the midst of noise,
listening for your gentle heartbeat.
To those who are chilled by grief and pain,
bring the warmth of your love.
To those who are overwhelmed
by feelings that exhaust and stifle,
bring the cooling breeze of your love.
To those who are caught in the glare of expectations,
bring the comforting darkness of your love.
To those who find themselves in shadows of anxiety,
bring the morning dawn of your love.
Breathe courage into our day.
Whisper strength into our dreams.
We ask these things in the name of your child, Jesus, who was born into a chaotic world of birth, death, and rebirth – just like today. Amen.
Hear now an interpretation of the prayer that Jesus taught:
Dear God, our Creator, beloved companion and guide upon the way, eternal Spirit within us and beyond us.
Let us honour your name in lives of costly, giving love.
Let us show that we and all whom we meet deserve dignity and respect, for they are your dwelling place and your home.
Let us share in action your deep desire for justice and peace among peoples of the world.
Let us share our bread with one another, the bread that you have shared with us.
Let us, in the spirit of your forgiving us, make friends with those we have harmed and failed to love.
Let us overcome our trials and temptations, our suffering and dying, in the strength and the courage which you overcame them too.
Let us in your love free the world from evil, transforming darkness into light.
For the whole universe is yours, and you invite us to be partners in the work of your creating.
Amen.  So be it.  So will we do it.

Jim Cotter and Paul Payton in Out of the Silence.....Prayer’s Daily Round.  P. 507.  Aberdaron: Cairns Publications, 2010

Listening to the Word
700 years before the time of Christ, a dreamer walked among the villages of Judah and through the streets of Jerusalem. They called him a prophet. Isaiah was his name.

He saw it every day - the pain, the conflict, the suffering, the anger, the warfare, the famine - Isaiah saw the injustice all around him, and knew there had to be a better way. In his heart and in his prayers, Isaiah heard the Holy One of Israel offer a dream of hope. And these are some words through which Isaiah expressed this dream.

Reading: Based on Isaiah 40:1-5
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
It is now a time to speak tenderly to you and say:
Your time of sorrow is over;
You have received more than your fair share of suffering.
A highway to your heart is being prepared for God’s love.
The valleys of despair will be lifted up and the mountains of challenge will be brought low.
Goodness and Loving Mercies will make their way to you and all shall see it.
There is a word of hope for the hopeless; a way for those who are groping in the shadows.
Remember, nothing is impossible for God

Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas,
star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the God-head,
love incarnate, love divine;
worship we our Jesus:
but where is God’s sacred sign?

Love shall be our token;
love be yours and love be mine.
Love to God and neighbour,
love for plea and gift and sign.
     Words Christina Rossetti (alt) Tune Gartan

Responding to the Word
And now in a time of remembrance, reflection and letting go I will in a moment invite you to come forward to light a candle, perhaps to spill some petals in the water.  There are many prayers we might want to make as we do so:
To own the pain of losing loved ones, of dreams that go unfulfilled, of hopes that evaporate in despair.
To find the courage to confront our sorrow, to comfort each other, to share our feelings openly and to dare to hope in the midst of pain.
To give thanks for memories, of laughter and tears, of caring and sharing. 
To honour the love we have given and the love we have received.

Invite people forward and then there will be a time of quiet where there are no words, just music and our heart reflections.

Lighting of Christ Candle
We light this Christ candle, reminding us that Christ hears our cries, Christ knows our hearts and in the midst of it all Christ offers us hope and healing.

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Hope.
For those who lit our lives with joy,
for those who have touched us with tenderness,
for those whose loss fills us with longing,
Holy God, we give thanks in glad remembrance.

We celebrate those who have loved us for ourselves,
looking with acceptance on all that we are,
and cherishing us without condition or constraint.
Holy God, we give thanks in glad remembrance.

We celebrate those who have stood alongside us,
holding us in the depths of elation or despair
where words of joy or rescue fall silent.
Holy God, we give thanks in glad remembrance.

We celebrate those who would not let us stand still,
edging us gently into the open space
of new understanding and delighted exploration.
Holy God, we give thanks in glad remembrance.

We celebrate those who have challenged us to grow,
perceiving all that we have it in us to become
and daring us to dream beyond our imagining.
Holy God, we give thanks in glad remembrance.

We celebrate all that we have become,
living in the nurture of their love,
learning and growing in the shelter of their love,
enduring and finding hope in the courage of their love

For those who lit our lives with joy,
for those who have touched us with tenderness,
for those whose loss fills us with longing,
Holy God, we give thanks in glad remembrance.

Go from here in peace and may the holy God prepare the way for you, may Jesus Christ take your hand on the way, and may the spirit surround you with grace.  Amen.

[1] Doing December Differently  p.25 

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 7 December, 2014 Advent 2 Quarterly Communion.

Readings: Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13,  Mark 1: 1-8

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. 

In studying the Old Testament reading for today  – parts of psalm 85  - I was suddenly very aware of a sense of timelessness – a strong and faithful thread stretching from the day of the psalmist to us today. It was the pattern of the psalm – of acknowledging the greatness of God in our lives and our history, the forgiveness of sin, the word of God given and expanded on, and words of hope with which to journey on with.  A familiar liturgical approach that we continue to follow in services today.  It is also an inspiring sermon, powerful and evocative, one which deserves our close attention.
For is was just that – a word spoken in the midst of the daily life of the community and the regular worship of the people of God.  Not from a mountain top nor in the midst of prophetic fervour but spoken into the ordinary and the everyday, amidst the ups and downs of life – a word acknowledging the past but with a sense of urgency for the now and a clear vision of God’s intentions for the future.  May I read you the words of the psalmist again – they begin with a reminder of how good God has been to the people in the past, of how their waywardness has been forgiven and God’s love for them is constant, then we hear this vision for the hope of the world :
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. 
The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.”[1]
In this stunning imagery of hope and promise for the salvation of the world, we have four core phrases or words: 
steadfast love, righteousness, faithfulness and peace, spoken into and lived through the lives of all those who believe in and trust in God.
This is what God’s salvation for the world will look like.  And there is a pointed message in here for those who believe that salvation is only about a person’s individual experience, or is something that happens once and on which you can rest.  You know that annoying person who comes up to you and says: ‘have you been saved?’ The biggest thing wrong with that question, to my mind, is that it is set firmly in the past tense, a one off experience, a done and dusted moment.  We have so lost the art of the active tense – we talk reformed not reforming, baptised not continual and ongoing baptism, ritualised gathering round the table instead of a continuing experience of the presence of Christ and, particularly at this time of year, remembering only the historical birth of the Christ child and ignoring the continuing and renewing life God births into us and into the world. 
The thrust of this sermon of long ago is that salvation is an active and now experience, anchored in the faithfulness of the past yet reaching into the hope of a future yet to come.
And there are some quite helpful threads for us. 
The psalmist gets that salvation is not so much about the individual as the whole people of God and our relationship with the world we live in.
They get that salvation of the world is way beyond our limited and individualistic vision but stretches from the heavens to the deepest earth - across time, through many differing journeys, and in ways we have no knowledge of  - a confident, all encompassing vision of the kingdom of God.  
And finally the psalmist also gets that salvation is not about the elect escaping hellfire and brimstone in some distant future, but that it is a promise of now and future blessing and hope for all people, the active living out of steadfast love, faithfulness, peace and right living.  Powerful preaching indeed.  
And then we move forward in time to John the Baptist who is another thread in God’s vision of salvation for the world – he speaks of the coming of that blessing, of preparing the way for Jesus – he too looks back to the prophecies of Isaiah, speaks with urgency of the need for redemptive action now and holds out the promise of what, or who, is to come.  He certainly had no concept of sitting back and waiting for some perfect future time – and he definitely didn’t hold back on his clear vision of the coming of salvation, of the coming of the one we had been waiting for.   I had a random thought – if that was today and we were expecting this important person to arrive, we would be filing detailed security plans, have several options if the weather was uncooperative, be trying to pin down a time and place for television coverage, the media would be anticipating what this important person was going to say and why they were coming and we would be checking the background of this weirdo who credentials were hazy and didn’t seem to have any financial or online footprint.  Sorry – minor detour there.
Prepare ye the way.   Await the coming of Christ.  Live into the vision!    So how do we as the people of God do that?  As community and individuals, we honour and remember all who have gone before, where we have come from and the wisdom gifted to us by the faithful of all time. 
We recognise the vastness God’s mercy and love, and the limits of our understandings, trusting in God’s definition of welcome and salvation, not ours. 
We are clear in our vision and active in our belief that where steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other,  then there is salvation for the world – we are the hands and feet of Christ – welcoming, loving, compassionate and kind – especially to the vulnerable and unlovely.
We are a community of God linked through time and place with all who are now, who have gone before and all yet to come – the threads that connect us are strong and flexible, and require us to lean on and share with each other.  And for me, and I hope for you, we embody this Christian living  in the sacrament of holy communion  – as we gather around the table where so many have come, where all are welcome and where Christ Jesus is the host and, in the mystery of now and yet to come,  is with us.   This is a place where steadfast love and faithfulness meet, where righteousness and peace kiss each other – for here we are in the presence of Christ, in the company of love.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Psalm 85:8-13  NRSV

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 30th November, 2014 Advent 1 St Andrews Day

Readings: Mark 13:24-37, John 1: 35-42

Let us pray:  May your word for us, O God, speak into our hearts and minds, challenge us, encourage us and assure us in our faith and our living, in Jesus name.  Amen

I wonder, if we were to strip away our pre knowledge of the advent story goes, would that change the way we approach this season of waiting.  After all what is expectant waiting if you know exactly what you are waiting for.  What is hope-filled anticipation if you can say act by act what happened?  What is spectacularly transforming about this moment if you can rely on it coming round each year like clockwork. 
I ask this question of myself pretty much every year trying to find a new way into the Christmas story, trying to imagine what it must have been like for Mary, trying to strip away not just my familiarity with the story but also the layers of accumulated cultural and historical response and get back to the beginning.  I’ve previously talked of the Christmas card Mary – mainly a legacy of the Victorian era, or the white faced European Mary of religious art or the perfect Mary of the traditions that have deified her.  And yet we do her a disservice - is not her powerful message of trust and obedience to be found in her very humanity, her ordinariness, her faltering innocence and extremely vulnerable social position – the stuff we seem intent on doing away with?

So in many ways our contemporary knowledgeable anticipation of the coming of God’s promised one at Christmas is very different from the experience of those who, back then, awaited the Messiah not knowing the time or the place or the manner of this fearfully anticipated birth. A very different waiting from ours. 
Maybe this is why we have such a challenging Gospel reading at the beginning of Advent – a reading that seems both out of context and out of time: the second coming before the first, the end time when we are supposed to be thinking about the hope of new beginning.

Maybe the lectionary writers wanted to remind us of what it means to wait, knowing neither the time nor the place nor the manner of Christ’s coming, just as did Mary and Joseph all those years ago.
Here is something that might be helpful.  One commentator talks about the difference between passive waiting and active waiting and uses the analogy of someone waiting for the bus (passive – unless its late of course)– as opposed to hearing the sound of the parade and waiting for it to come round the corner – on tip toes, eagerly anticipating, full of expectation.

So does this mean that we are to spend our lives bouncing up and down in excitement, keeping our eyes peeled and our lives on hold?  Absolutely not.  Alternatively, are we to spend our time and energy trying to figure out when this second coming will be so we can be first at the welcoming gate?  Again absolutely not.
‘Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.’  This is not a call for us to figure out God’s timetable nor is it a time for us to wait alert, eyes peeled doing nothing else.  It is a call to active expectant waiting, anticipating yet engaged with the now.

The two stories together, the nativity and the second coming,  very clearly remind us of the most important of paradoxes in the Gospel – that of living with the truth of Christ among us already and also in anticipation of a full and complete relationship with God in a time yet to come.  The ‘already but not yet’ as we call it.
So our waiting is an active waiting, an alert and awake time of living our lives in the way of the one who has already come and in the hope of the one still to come. In that way we bind the waiting of Advent to that which is yet to come – because by living actively in the now as Jesus taught us, we continually encounter, glimpse, participate in what is yet to come.  In every act of compassion, of service, of justice and grace we are preparing the way for what is to come – is in fact a stepping into what will be.  If you plan to wait passively, alert only to the end, then you not only miss the journey – you also fall asleep.  If you join in the journey then the many wonderful God moments along the way will not only enliven your waiting but will kindle a light for others too.

For that is what the apostle Andrew did, did he not.  It is astonishing to look at the miles he travelled in his waiting, taking the gospel message to places like modern day Poland, Russia and the Ukraine (all of which he is patron saint to) and Greece and Constantinople  and Rome.  He is known to have set out at least four missionary trips through these countries and it was in Patras in Greece that he was crucified!
He wasn’t sitting back waiting – he was living out the call that was placed on his life – getting on with it.  So I can see an immediate exodus from Opoho as you all head of into the hinterlands – ok maybe not.

That was St Andrew’s story of waiting.  What is ours?  How do we live into the God with us and yet remain alert to the God yet to come?  What does our waiting, if that’s what it is, look like? 
I thank you all for your very positive response to the future of full time ministry here in Opoho – and for your trust in our journey together continuing.  Because by doing so you have made a conscious decision to not just sit tight and see out our time but instead to actively seek out ways of being Christ in this community. 

As we raise the level of awareness of our need to be financially sustainable – do you know what I see – increasing stories of acts of generosity inside and outside the church, gifts of money, time, energy to the needy, for the vulnerable in our city.  Did you all see that both the cities’ food banks and the Night Shelter will be scraping the bottom of the barrel this next couple of months?  Can we respond ?  Can we be generous in our giving of food and can we get some money to the Night Shelter – I suspect we can. 

As we continue to engage in hospitality for students, for neighbours, for those on the edges – we become more aware of the need to support each other too – how important is it to be made welcome, to share food around the table, to rest and have a safe place to ask questions.  That is a integral part of our mission in Opoho and we constantly think about how we can encourage and engage as a welcoming community of faith. 

And there is the everyday – remember that tree that we so beautifully decorated a couple of weeks ago – all the things that we do for each other and for the continuing of this, Christ’s presence, here in this place.  And do you know what was an unexpectedly important one for me – those who hold the memory of what has been – for it enabled me to imagine and see more clearly and have an expectant hope in that which was to come?    Does that make sense?

So none of this sounds to me like we are a people who are sleeping while they wait for the second coming.  This sounds to me like a people alert and engaged in the journey that Christ has invited us on, bringing the kingdom of God that is to come very intentionally into the here and now – and for this we say thanks to God -  in Jesus name.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 22 November, 2015 ‘What Christ may come?’

Readings:  Revelation 1:4b-8,  John 18:33-37

Let us pray:  Keep your church alert, Holy Spirit, ready to hear when you are calling, and when you challenge us.  Keep us hopeful, Holy Spirit, knowing that Christ will come again.  Rouse our spirits, Jesus Christ, that whenever you come to the door and knock you may find us awake , ready to admit and serve you.  Stir up O God, the wills of your faithful people… through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Over the years, I have struggled with this question:  ‘What Christ may come?’ 
Is it the Christ of my Sunday School years – soft and reliable and easy enough to in my back pack to pull out when guidance was needed. 
Or is it the Christ of others – either the easily dismissed because I could smell the hypocrisy from miles away or the elusive just occasionally glimpsed in the lives of those who believed or the scary that called but would mean giving me up if I succumbed!
Or is it the Christ of my journey now – who stirs me up, breaks me down, centres me, sends me flying, with whom I share doubts and laughter and tears, of whom I know as truth and as promise and as love. The Christ that walks with me, challenges me to grow and disturbs the very fibre of my being, who enables me to be at peace in uncertainty and hopeful in a broken world despite all evidence to the contrary.  That is my Christ who has come.  The Christ of my journey and of my destination.
What of you?  What of other Christians in the world?  It is neither my right nor my desire to force any statements of faith out of you right now – although, as we heard here last Sunday, affirming and expressing your understanding of ‘What Christ has come?’ is something that can only feed our understanding of whose it is that we are.
But what I do want to ask you is ‘In what ways does your Christ stir you up – and are you willing to be stirred.
(For Knox:  This morning at Opoho we had ‘stir-up Sunday’  where we mixed up a Christmas pudding and heard the collect used in the Anglican prayer book for this day – which includes the words: Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people….)
Jesus was certainly stirring when he faced Pilate – and there was a small indication that Pilate was willing to engage in that conversation.  You can hear the slightly searching questions:
‘Are you the king of the Jews’
‘I don’t know what they think? Just answer the question’
Are you or aren’t you?’  You can hear the frustration too.  In his own way he was really trying to figure this guy out.
What was this truth that Jesus knew and that he, Pilate, couldn’t grab hold of?
But the answer was too ‘out there’ for Pilate, beyond his vision, his experience.  In a way he refused to be stirred up.
My kingdom is not from this world says Jesus – um what?. The authority given comes not from people but from God. Uh.  The kingdom sought is not of the people but of God and love and compassion the hallmarks.  Aw come on I am one of the most powerful people around and if I was to show the slightest weakness – it’d be all over.  Yeah, no!

He could not envisage the kingdom that Jesus spoke of.  But this why we are here is it not?  In some way we each of us catch glimpses of God’s kingdom - can see that vision of a world ruled by love and compassion, a place of peace and justice and grace, the hope that Jesus was born into this world to fulfil.

And when we lift our eyes to that vision, does it stir us up, engage us, encourage us to continue on the journey to know Jesus more deeply and to live out the way of Jesus in our lives.  Does the fact that you can believe in the promise of the kingdom to come help us to live well into the Christ that has come in the now?  Does it hold back the wave of despair at the awful stuff that is happening in the world, at the frustration of inaction and the pounding of the cynical world?  Does it give us hope for the journey and trust in the destination.  I hope so.

A story – of journey and destination.[1]

[1] A Blessing to Follow by Tom Gordon from A Blessing to Follow: Contemporary parables for living p.265

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 15 November 2015 Pentecost 25

Readings: 1 Samuel 2, Mark 13:1-8

We pray:  May all that we hear in heart and mind challenge, assure and encourage us to respond in faith in Jesus name.  Amen

I was sitting in First Church earlier in the week at a lunchtime service, we were discussing the Gospel reading for today and then one person looked up and physically and metaphorically raised an eyebrow: ‘Do you see this great building? Not a stone will be left here upon another…..I have to say it left us all with a sense of being in the gospel story in a way we hadn’t before and in not a very comfortable way.
And for me it raised this question.  How closely do you think we associate buildings, especially but not only significant buildings with the wellness of our faith?  How much ‘hope’ do we put in them for our future survival and how deep is our despair when they prove to be relatively ephemeral -  and our ability to sustain numerical and financial viability within those buildings proves problematic?
Troubling questions but symptomatic of the stray paths that we can find ourselves going down as the people of God.  Placing our hope, in the metaphorical large stones and large buildings of our faith begs the question - what happens when they fall down?  When our numbers fall, when we no long have right of entry and respected voice on the world stage, when our churches close, when we are in despair at a world that seems to sink deeper and deeper into violence and greed and cynical selfishness, how is it that we are to be a people of hope, a people who believe in the power of love over darkness, in the vision of Jesus for a world where justice and peace reigns, where the lion lies down with the lamb?  

I think if we explore some of our ‘temples’ we might find why we are so our stray paths both beckon and are dead ends.

Where did we get the idea that faith should be comfortable and controllable or that we should miraculously become perfect or expect people to become perfect because of it? That when life gets hard it’s because our faith is weak. That when things go wrong it is deserved or God is being less than loving.
Dead end stuff indeed.  I know a God who loves me unconditionally as a imperfect, sometimes downright bolshie human being, a God who holds me up when things go wrong, who weeps with me in times of sadness and continually surprises me and challenges me to grow in faith especially out of the dead end or the vulnerable moments.  Comfortable faith to me means going nowhere in particular.

From where comes the concept that baptism, affirmation, commitment is a one off event preparing us for the end time, not a way of life now?  Faith in this man Jesus the Christ is not about ticking one off boxes then going our own sweet way but rather all about what we do in Jesus name every day - what I call the ‘ing’ words – living, reforming, creating, suffering, loving, praying, baptising – where we live and act with Christ within the reality of this world, forever learning, growing, questioning, alongside all the curve balls that life throws at us.   

When did bricks and mortar become the defining of who we are as church rather than the people who worship together as the body of Christ?  When have we put tradition, ritual or lack thereof above grace, mercy and inclusiveness? 
No wonder people look and say no thanks, turn away from a church that seems fixated on what is the ‘right’ way to worship, the ‘best’ way to get bums on pews, the ‘one’ way to understand scripture which  can often be narrow and made exclusive to suit.  No wonder people leave churches where all the energy is keeping the institution going or the building drains all the finances.  Wherefore the community facing people of God, making a difference in this community, this world?  Nowhere. Another dead end!
At the same time I want to challenge anyone who says the church is dead, that God is absent from this world, that hope is gone and transformation an impossible dream.
So often the failures and imperfections are all that people choose to see, the stray paths the only ones that are perceived or commented on.
We also need to celebrate and hold strong to the everyday realities that living in faith and love brings.  The baptism of Harriet today – a child, small and precious in the eyes of God and her family with her life ahead, the compassion in the midst of sorrow, the meal shared, the forgiveness lived out, the joy of laughter shared, the gifting without expectation, the encounter with the stranger that enriches both, the questions and doubts profferedd in a safe and trusting community, and the peace, the peace that passes all understanding – you will know these things and more.
So yes we get it wrong, head off on stray paths from time to time, the world is broken for so many people, our buildings may tumble and our path into the future be unknown and uncomfortable but we who live in the continual baptism that is Christ in our lives hear this message too.
Jesus tells us is that within our very human frailties and the birth pangs of the world we all carry the seeds of hope – seeds that grow with every act of love and compassion, forgiveness and mercy.  That in the community of faith, the struggles and the pain sit alongside the deep trust we have in the purpose of God: the power of love, the teachings of Jesus, the new life found where death seemed to hold sway.  Birth pangs awaiting the emergence of beautiful  

To end:  there is no right way, there is no perfect church or person, there is no event or condition or structure that will provide hope for the world - there is only God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland