Saturday, 26 March 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 27 March Easter Sunday.

Reading: John 20:1-18

We pray:  Holy God, Risen Christ, we pray this day for discernment, for our eyes to be opened and our faith to be strengthened as we hear you word for us today and everyday.  Amen.

It is very early in the morning, and Mary of Magdala was walking slowly down to the tomb to do the saddest and most heart breaking thing –to anoint with sweet spices the body of the one she, they all loved, the one they called Jesus. 
But he wasn’t there, the impossibly big stone had been moved, the tomb was empty.  Not stopping to check the dark corners, she ran to tell the others ‘they have taken him out of the tomb and we do not know where they have taken him.’  And with them she came back to the tomb only to fall to her knees weeping outside.  John, the beloved disciple got there first but didn’t go in, Peter not far behind, had no such scruples – straight past, straight into the dark cavern, and then too John. One saw and believed, the other saw and did not quite connect the dots.  None of the three understood the full potential of the open tomb and the scattered grave clothes.  Not yet anyway.

John’s account of the early morning after the Sabbath gives us just one woman who came to the tomb, one who was deeply disturbed by Jesus disappearance, unwilling to think other than desecration even when the angels appear, only realising the full implications of the stone rolled away when Jesus speaks to her. 
Till then she believed his body to have been moved by others - ‘They have taken him somewhere’ she says, ‘they have taken him away.’ 
Jesus is there to tell her that, no he hasn’t been taken, he has gone from the tomb. Purposeful resurrection, not political expediency.  He was not taken, he had gone.  Big difference. 
He has gone from the tomb, as we are to go from whatever are our tombs of disinterest, apathy, comfortable isolation, rigid thinking or self interest – not be taken by someone else’s actions but to go ourselves – where God calls us.
We are responsible for nurturing our own faith, coming to our own understanding of what Jesus means to us and to be able to articulate that by word and deed. Each of the three that came to the tomb had a different response, each a unique relationship with God and each a particular way of coming to an understanding of what had just happened.  We can’t ride on another person’s experience, we need to have our own. We can’t believe because another has said it is so, we have to see for ourselves.  And that means we have to listen, have our eyes opened, as Mary did, realise the potential of the open tomb made known in Jesus Christ and go tell the others what we have seen and known.

So we are to go.  But where are we to go? We are to go where Jesus went. 

The messengers said – he is not here, he has gone on ahead of you to Galilee.   Go and look for him there.  Go, don’t wait to be taken.  Look for him among the people.

(1) Look  for him among the children – Jesus really loved the children, like to talk and laugh with them, didn’t mind at all when they made noise in church, he got very cross when people  hurt children, and he made a lot of children who were sick or sad feel better.  Remember the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter – an argumentative desperate mother whose pleas were answered and her daughter healed.  And remember the children he gathered round him and the truth that children bring to our faith.  So Jesus will definitely be found among the children, especially those who have hard lives, who live with war or violence, who have no one to look after them, who are hungry or cold

Look for Jesus among the poor, those who don’t have jobs or not enough money to live on, those who are homeless and who have to beg on the streets – remember blind Bartimaeus – it must have been pretty scary when he could first see – he had only ever known being dependent on others charity – but Jesus had healed him and he had to learn how to be independent, to read and fish and be part of the community – and follow Jesus. He might have wished he couldn’t see, that awful week in Jerusalem.  So we will find Jesus walking along with people who are poor, helping them to speak out against a system that doesn’t care enough to help them and helping them be brave enough to go on.

And we will certainly find Jesus among outsiders and those who are discriminated against.  Where people are treated unfairly, that’s where he will go.  He knows all about not belonging, being accused and treated badly through fear and ignorance.  He surely does – and so he seeks out the outsiders or those whom others condemned  – like the Samaritan woman at the well – looked down by just about everyone.  She and Jesus talked, properly, he gave her back her sense of self, enough that she was able to convince those who had given her such a hard time that he was the Messiah.  Today there are plenty of people who are not treated equally, who are subjected to prejudice, bigotry, isolation – lonely, afraid, bewildered – I definitely think that that is where Jesus would go – making friends with them, treating them seriously, making them feel welcome and at home.

And we should look for Jesus among people who share – those who have a lot and those who have very little – not just because then everyone would have enough but also it is just really good to enjoy things together and not worry about someone missing out.  Remember the boy with the loaves and fishes.  Who could forget?  No one went away hungry that day – imagine if the world was like that – no one was hungry, everyone had the medicine they needed, everyone had a place to call home and could go to school and everyone felt like they mattered.  Jesus cared for those who were hungry, so that is where he would go.

And lastly we look for Jesus among the sad.  He didn’t try and find them to tell them to stop being sad, he looked for them so he could sit with them and comfort them and he would remind them that even if the person has died or gone away then the love was still there.  Remember Mary’s story – sitting outside the tomb weeping that someone had taken Jesus body away.  But then there was that moment when Jesus spoke to her and she knew such incredible wonder and joy in the midst of the ache.  He was still going to go away but he gave her a job to do – to go and tell the others the good news of resurrection.

So our Easter Day question – where are we looking for the risen Jesus.  If we are looking among the respectable and the comfortable we are unlikely to find him.  If we think he has been taken away from us, or we are still ensconced in the dark tomb of dogma and fear and guilt, then we have haven’t looked and listened and understood the meaning of the risen Christ.
But if we are looking for Christ in the vulnerable, the lost, the needy and the sad then we are very likely to have found the way to Galilee.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

(1)  Based on Look for Jesus…Fire and Bread Kathy Galloway and Ruth Burgess.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 20 March, 2016 Palm Sunday

Readings:  Psalm 118  Luke 19:28-40

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.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…
This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made…
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord..
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone….
This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvellous in our eyes…..
Both in song and in word, Psalm 118 is awash with phrases that resonate in our lives and our faith and that are drawn upon in the New Testament.  I suspect the only phrase that diverts us rather is ‘bind the festal procession with branches up to the horns of the altar’ which was possibly a liturgical instruction or rule for worship that accompanies the psalm.
Psalm 118 was said to be Martin Luther’s favourite psalm, one that sustained him in difficult times.  For the Jews this was and still is read during Passover celebrations. For Christians it is the lectionary psalm for Palm Sunday every year.  In all four Gospels the whole multitude of disciples welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with the acclamation from the psalm: ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’.

This psalm is a prayer of thanksgiving focussed wholly on the power and goodness of God.  Not on our goodness, our efforts to get through the gate but the righteousness of the one that has come to save and set free all people.  It is all about God: the one who brought the people out of Egypt, who sustained them through the exodus, and to whom they come to the temple to praise and give thanks to.
The psalm begins and ends with a core affirmation of faith: ‘O give thanks to our God, who is good; whose steadfast love endures forever.’  Under threat, in distress, outnumbered, pushed to the limit, in every circumstance we are buttressed on all sides by God, who is good and whose love endures.  So says the psalmist.

And as we connect this psalm to the gospel reading for today, the hosannas welcoming Jesus to the gates of Jerusalem, the procession into the city and the  drama, tragedy to come within the gates, there are a couple of themes that stand out quite strongly for me.
Why do we find it so difficult to live in thanksgiving for the steadfast love which surrounds us and (connected) where does God wish to lead today’s procession?

Like the people of the Exodus, we too can ride a bit of a rollercoaster in our relationship with God – heartfelt praise and thanks, anger and impatience, fear and courage and demand and gifting.  It’s all there and I suspect will also be so.  The thing that is troublesome though is not a lively and challenging relationship with our God – that is good - but when we allow fear to overcome faith and remove God from the equation.  When we decide God is not present, not caring or simply not interested in little old us and try to do it all by ourselves, rely purely on our own resources.  Where we forget that steadfast love and hunker down into our resources to keep us safe – that is when we get into trouble.
That is when community becomes self and shared experience isolation, busyness takes the place of being still in the presence, thanksgiving becomes material accumulation and joy becomes anxiety nurtured by ‘what ifs’.  Life becomes a chore, a box, a place of small vision and little hope. 
The thing I get from the psalm today is the absolute expansiveness of God’s love and promise that can only be responded to by expansive joy and exuberant living on our part.  It doesn’t take out the difficult parts of the journey but it holds them all in the confidence of God’s righteousness and enduring love and grace. 

All words you say – isn’t it human nature to hold back a little bit on the celebrations just in case there is a beastie waiting round the corner about to pounce.  Isn’t it a little in the face to dance and leap for joy when there are others who find little joy in life and it goes without saying that it is a bit undignified.  
But don’t we hear enough stories where the shining confidence of God with us in our daily lives speaks to those who look on – the Christians in modern day Palestine who have nothing, celebrating the birth of Christ and shining their light into the darkness surrounding them, the approach to the unappetising stranger made possible in the enduring love of God beside us, the people in this congregation whose faith illuminates them and us, the peace that surrounds us when we stop and give thanks for God in our lives, the moments of inexpressible joy that come to us in the laughter of a child, the beauty of creation, the neighbourly act, the gifting of grace to each other.  God is good and God’s love surrounds us.

Yet it is a bumpy ride – we walk with the procession, shouting our hosannas but, within, trepidation walks with us, unertainty is present, the wee beastie probably is around the corner.  Jesus entered the city knowing what was to come, that even within the glorious certainty of God with him  there were moments of despair, of reluctance – he never could have done what he did on his own, without his Father alongside.  And our procession today – even when we are certain of the presence of God, even when we feel cherished and sing out God’s grace in our lives, what intrudes on our procession?  And do we even know where our walk is taking us. 
Some of you will remember the White Paper that the Moderator Andrew Norton released last year – and now we have the responses published and some further thinking laid out about our choices of direction and being the effective missional church of Jesus Christ in Aotearoa.  And there are some hard messages in there, some directions that will strip us of complacency and encourage radical ways (also known as the ways of Jesus) of being church.  Yet it is in that direction that we must be shouting our hosannas, for if we continue as a muted, voiceless, divided, spiritless, inward looking community of faith we are denying the power and goodness of God to work through us and in us no matter where we process. 
Remember those words from the psalm: 
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…
This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made…
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord..
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone….
This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvellous in our eyes…..
I would like to finish with a poem by RevMarty Stewart, a Presbyterian Minister in Christchurch.
A Palm Sunday Prayer
[Using the John O’Donohue poem Fluent]
'I would love to live like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise of its own unfolding '

This Palm Sunday remembrance suggests such a flow 
– an ease – feeling good, all going well, 
heads lifted to the shining sun and arms waving in the gentle breeze, 
with you O God, at the centre, 
and a vibrant path of possibilities unfolding before us.
But the thud of the real world comes upon us.
Not, so far (thank God), a cross, or a tomb,
But our feet do trip on stones, we bump up against hidden obstacles.
The skies fill with threatening clouds.
And the reality of what limits us revives our fears.
We long for a Hosanna but often we are left with a lament.
We look to Jesus.
Free. Resilient against the grumpy looks 
of those who cannot see for looking, cannot see that even the stones cry out in praise.
We look to Jesus.
Alive. Breathing the air, celebrating living.
Able to rejoice in the gift of the day upon him despite the clouds on the horizon.
We long for a Hosanna and are invited into one.
The hosanna of all creation shouting: “This is the day that the Lord has made!”
The Hosanna that invites us to live ‘…like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.’
Therefore, this day, and every day, despite the clouds
because your light has come, O God, and invited us into its freedom, 
we join in the song of all creation – Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest! Amen.

Margaret Garland.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 13 March 2016 Lent 5

Readings:  Isaiah 43:16-21,  John 12:1-8

Let us pray; God grant us ears to hear, minds to understand and the hearts to responds to your word.  In Jesus name. Amen.

What was it that Jesus really taught?  Among the many parables, teachings, prayers, actions, what are the non-negotiables do you think that challenge the status quo?  Now that is a mean question because I have some time to think about this and you have just had it sprung upon you.  But it is a fair question!  What are the non-negotiables in Jesus teaching?  Father Richard Rohr,[1] a Franciscan priest based in New Mexico has asked this in the context of the following: “Have we slowly fallen away from the core of the teaching of Jesus and created ‘an evacuation plan for the next world’ instead of loving our neighbour in this world”.  What are the non-negotiables in loving our neighbour? I am going to give you a moment to think about this before we hear his thoughts.

Richard suggests that it includes the following:
ü  Peacemaking
ü  Love of enemy
ü  Forgiveness
ü  Justice and generosity to the poor
ü  A community based on inclusion for all

I don’t think that many would argue with these – you might have different words, more to add but in the end this is Jesus’ teaching around how we love our neighbour, now, here. 
As Rohr says:  how can you listen to the sermon on the mount, hear the beatitudes and think that we can be anything other than non-violent – and he defines the moment where peace became a lost cause the moment Christianity was adopted as the imperial religion by Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century – where the faith was used to create social order in Europe – the belonging system for Europe, he calls it.
Rohr mentions that he hears in the American elections the new non-negotiables of some Christians – pro-life – as defined by them, anti stem cell research, against contraception –much as we appear to have some new non-negotiables here in this church..  When did they become the non-negotiables, he asks with some perplexity – surely it is forgiveness and the love of enemies that are the core values of our Christian living.  If that had been heard by the church throughout the centuries would we not have had a different world now?  But we weren’t so interested in that but holding our selves ready and worthy for the next world.  So we became the non-forgivers, the haters, the war mongers – none, not one of the Christian nations have a history of being peace makers.  Rohr suggests it would only be the Quakers and Mennonites and Amish who retain the peace witness of the Christian church as church bodies.
Generosity toward the poor and the outsider!  Page after page in the gospel – very clear.  But again it didn’t fit with our living – huge fortunes amassed by churches, nations people – security and safety then we might look farther afield but to be honest we didn’t want to hear about the less well off – it didn’t fit in our radar screen, says Rohr.
And then he challenges us to find a story where Jesus excludes – he always names the situation but never excludes.  And in an admittedly broad brush stroke he defines churches as exclusive institutions where so many are not welcome or don’t fit – his exact words are that churches are the life saving stations that have become the country club.
He especially quotes his own catholic church and participating in the eucharist – only the worthy, the pure, the true members may come to the table when every time Jesus eats, he is with the ‘wrong’ people at the ‘wrong’ table or saying or doing the ‘wrong thing’.
In fact you could say that Jesus was crucified because of who he ate with – by re-doing the social order he upset everyone that it was possible to upset – he had to be taken out!

And the thing is – each of these non-negotiables that Jesus teaches, that he points us to again and again is, in the eyes of the world, radical, topsy turvey, troubling to the established order.  And like it or not, that is what we are part of – the established order.  We work in it, vote in it, makes choices offered by it, answer to it and are encultured by and to it.  Yet Jesus non-negotiables, the Christ-filled values we are to live by put us quite firmly outside this order. 
And therein lies the tension that we live with everyday – as have Christians and people of any faith, throughout time.  Straddling the perplexity of living in the way of Jesus in the midst of a world that expects, nay demands other. 
Almost too hard we might say.  Be of this world and put your faith in the world to come or withdraw from this world in community of like-mindedness and survive that way.  But I don’t think that either of these are what Jesus’ teaching is encouraging – he was very much in the midst, always making decisions that challenged the set behaviour and questioned the rules of engagement, engaging with the authorities and by his behaviour, who he ate with round the table if you like, setting out new ways of being for us all. 

So how do we do this.  Well I think that we have already covered some of the answer – where ever we negate the non-negotiables of Jesus teaching, peacemaking, love of enemy, forgiveness, care for the poor, justice, inclusiveness then we are deviating from the way of Jesus.  And sometimes we do – lets face it often we do – but we try, we are aware of when we get it wrong, we are open to new ways, better ways, Jesus ways.

When our rules for living, which may well have started out firmly based in gospel truth by the way, become de-personalised, overly formalised, subject to alternative values and interpretation or simply convenient then we should be suspicious, alert, challenging our part in them.  It is a subtle but deep trap, one that the scribes and Pharisees had fallen into and so have we, when we continue to abide by the rules when the heart has fallen out of them and something else has filled the vacuum.  And the heart is the non-negotiable values that Jesus demonstrated again and again and again.

A couple of examples maybe.
On Wednesday night we looked at generational influences in the light of the ten commandments that Moses brought down from Sinai.  We talked about how they are to be interpreted in today’s world when the context is not the same, the culture and world view different, even the meaning of the words to be challenged.  And for us, as Christians, they have to be interpreted in the light of Christ – surely!  The rules have to be read through the lens of the non-negotiables of Jesus and therefore of us – do not murder or covet or commit adultery are about being just and kind and compassionate, not intentionally seeking to hurt others for our own gains – fairly simple really.  Love God who loves you beyond measure - all the way to the cross actually, and seek to live in the way of love to all. 
I was in Wellington last week for the Leadership Sub Committee meeting– and, in company with the Moderator, Andrew Norton, we sought to find a way to get ourselves out of the deep mire that is Assembly meeting process gone toxic – where 60% rules and points of order, designed in the beginning to encourage fair and in good order discussion are now being used to browbeat and manipulate debate, to exclude and create division.  How do we find again our values as a Presbyterian Church in Aotearoa – a church that is inclusive, peacemaking, loving of each other, examples forgiveness and generosity and prioritises mission and justice for all? Not by this approach, that is for sure.

And from the reading today – yes I was going to get to it eventually – the anointing of Jesus.  From the gospel of John, we hear that it is Mary, sometimes called the ‘ideal disciple’ who carried out this extravagant act of covering Jesus feet with expensive perfume and wiping them clean with her hair.  And her act of giftedness she is challenged by someone who thinks they have an understanding of the non-negotiables – and we know through hindsight that he had a tenuous grasp at the best – Judas says why would you do this, you who should know better, when we could have sold it and given money to the poor.  You could say that the heart has fallen out of his interpretation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus – he is unaware of or impatient with the compassion and grace of the anointing, the extravagant gesture of love to the one who will not be long with them.   Jesus accepts her gift of the heart with grace and gratitude.

So what are our non-negotiables from Jesus? If we find that we are pretty much ending up always sitting the ‘wrong’ people at the ‘wrong’ table or saying or doing the ‘wrong thing’ then we are probably fairly well connected with the values that Jesus asks us to live by in this world as we wait for the promise of the world to come.  Amen.                                                                                         Margaret Garland


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 6 March Lent 4 Quarterly Communion

Readings:  2 Corinthians 5:16-21,  Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

We pray: Gracious God, we pray for a discerning heart and an enquiring mind as we hear your word for us today.  May all that we bring and all that we hear be gathered into your purpose for us.  In Jesus name. Amen.

The words we heard from Isaiah of last week where God says ‘My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts[1] have never been more aptly demonstrated than in the story of the prodigal son.  A story where reconciliation supplants resentment and grace punishment, where the restoration of proper relations between family, neighbours, community is sought against all convention and all human judgement.  It is a scandalous story of grace (or a story of scandalous grace?).

And the story was scandalous for the times – for it pushed all the buttons of inappropriate behaviour.

There was the inheritance.  Jewish law saw the land as a gift from God to the families of the tribes of Israel – to sell it out of the family was not only culturally but also religiously disgraceful.  And it is interesting that to give to the one, the Father also gave to the elder son too (so he divided the property between them) – effectively removing himself from ownership.  One assumes the social strictures of the time ensure a continuing home for the Father but one could argue that the fatted calf was not his to kill?  It is shocking behaviour, this flouting of age old values, almost as shocking as Jesus sitting down to eat with tax collectors and sinners?
Then the time in exile – the son has headed off without a look over his shoulder – and in the blink of an eye has squandered his inheritance completely – so much so that when famine comes he has nowhere to go, no-one to turn to. Deserved end to a foolish young man, most would say. Brought it upon himself, take the consequences. Shame though for the family.

And then comes that wonderful phrase - the prodigal ‘came to himself’ – realises in a moment of absolute clarity that who he has become is not who he is, that he is living a nightmare when he is supposed to live his father’s dream and the only way to reclaim that is to go on his knees back to his family, to his Father.  Not particularly surprising or scandalous at this point – but what was scandalous was that the Father, against all protocol, all expectation of appropriate behaviour, picked up his robes and ran to meet his son – not knowing why he had come home – might have just been to ask for more – not knowing if he repented of his choices, not allowing him a chance to grovel, plead for some bread – straight in to the feast, the celebration of a son reconciled to his family.  It’s a stunning picture isn’t it?
Dad, I’m…Welcome, welcome so good to see you - here put this robe on.  But I am….Sandals, you need sandals and here is your ring of belonging.  I need to tell you that I am not  worthy to be your son….Yes, yes, you - fatted calf, now! Let’s eat, let’s celebrate – you have come home, you were lost, and now you are found.  Praise God.

The family, the community stunned by the extravagant welcome of the father to the wayward child.  The older brother – speechless (well not quite) at the effrontery of his sibling but even more so angry at his father’s effusive welcome.  How dare they kill a fatted calf when he, the steady reliable one, had had not such celebration.  Who was the most deserving here, after all?

So on our scandal fact sheet:
Scandal fact no 1: That the son’s request for inheritance was complied with in the first place – the selling of God given land on the whim of an unappreciative child.
Scandal fact no 2: The Father puts loving before repentance – his effusive welcome and unconditional gathering in was before any words were spoken, any act of contrition carried out.
Scandal fact no 3: the prodigal didn’t have time to offload his guilt and shame, to be punished, diminished, made to pay.  He was overwhelmed with love without plea.
Scandal fact no 4: Older son’s arguments of justice and reward for good behaviour bears no weight with the father – in fact the Father is concerned that if he continues to take this approach he runs the risk of becoming as lost as his brother.

We need to hold this story in its context too - remember that it was told, along with the parable of the lost coin and of the lost sheep, as a response to the accusation by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law that Jesus both welcomes sinners and eats with them. Scandalous!  And that this story of the prodigal was his calculated response - and it centred around the throwing of a feast to celebrate the reconciliation of his family.  Inviting the tax collector, the sinner to join him at the table.

Hospitality was central to Jesus ministry – seen in so many of his stories and experiences.  But mealtimes were also a place of controversy for Jesus where he was seen to break the rules, mostly around who he sat down with.  You see, feasts for the Jewish people were places of belonging, a place where the sharing of the bread and the wine celebrated both the now and future salvation of God.  The Passover meal, the promise, the hope of deliverance.  The difference with Jesus invitation was, as Bill Loader says, the openendedness of the belonging – no one was excluded, not the tax collectors, nor the sinners nor the prodigal – all were welcome at the table with Jesus.  There may not be much bread or a surplus of wine in those simple homes, but all were welcome.  Jesus teaches us that it is around the table where reconciliation takes place, where right relationship is restored, where we each can be held in the profound love and unconditional welcome that is ours to accept – it was for this that Jesus lived and told stories and for this he would die, and just before his death would link the broken bread and the poured out wine to his broken and poured out life.  The table became the place of nourishment for life, for keeping the vision alive and for living in God’s welcome both now and for all time to come.  For all people.  Hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Isaiah 55:8