Friday, 29 April 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 May, 2016 Easter 6 and Holy Communion

Readings: Psalm 67, Acts 16:9-15, John 14:23-29

We pray:  As we hear your word opened to us O God, may we all find nurture, challenge and assurance that we might better be the generous gifting of love to a world that is hurting and in pain.  May we respond in faith we pray. Amen

During the night Paul had a vision… go to Macedonia
Earlier in Acts - Peter had a vision……to go and preach the word among the gentiles
Peter had no intention of sharing the word of God with the uncircumcised but his vision said otherwise.
Paul had no intention of going to Philippi – he was staying in Asia but his vision sent him into Europe.

Visions were not unusual in the days of the early church – visions were the work of the Spirit speaking into the lives and choices of the disciples.
Today, visions are contained in one pithy (or not) sentence and supported by twenty pages of strategic directions and expected outcomes.

Vision, dream, the working of the Spirit – whatever words we put around this, in the bible we hear of many experiences of God working in people’s lives and often sending them in directions they had no intention of going. How many said, like Peter, ‘I don’t totally get why this is happening but who am I to hinder God?’

For Paul the vision was of a man of Macedonia asking him to come to them, to help them – quite the opposite direction to their carefully thought out route through Asia Minor – but God had spoken, convinced them to go.
And in consequence they were doing just what the Psalmist had envisaged – that God’s way may be known upon the earth, among all nations – all at the bidding of a vision, the Spirit, in their lives.

And when they get there things don’t quite go according to the usual plan –wait for the Sabbath to discover who the devout Jews are so that Paul can approach with some hope of ears to hear.  Perhaps searching for the synagogue, they come upon a group of women in a place of prayer – and they stop, sit down and talk.  Not necessarily what one would have expected from Paul  – I would venture to suggest that would not have been his preferred option, that he would not have comfortably sat down with a bunch of women to talk and that it would have taken some prodding to do so.  And so Paul meets Lydia.

And the Spirit is working strongly in Lydia – talk about an open heart and a decisive response to the word.  Her first response was baptism, there and then, and her second response was offering, with some insistence, hospitality.  And from this woman come much of the passion and drive for the church in Philippi.

Quite some character our Lydia. How come?  Ronald Cole-Turner puts it this way:
Lydia is decisive because she is discerning, she is discerning because God has opened her heart to a new level of perception, she has this new level of perception because she comes to worship, she comes to worship because she is hungering for something more in life than her financial success, she is hungering for something more because that restless Spirit has stirred up a holy longing in her soul. Every step of the way the Spirit prompts and calls and blesses her.[1]

Lydia and Paul and Peter, among so many others in scripture, are the testimony to Jesus words in the Gospel - where he says to his disciples that neither he nor his Father will leave the disciples alone, that they are sending another to teach and remind – the guidance of the Spirit is present in their lives. 

And she along with the Peters and Pauls are also testimonies to that fact that the living God has made a home within each of them, a place of peace that encourages bold action, far reaching visions, decisive response.  Why?  Coming back to the Psalmist, surely so that they may take the word to all the nations and all people will be glad and sing for joy. 

Now that describes the church today doesn’t it?

On Wednesday night a few of us at Study Group began to engage with the Green Paper that the Moderator has recently distributed to the church.  And there was some fairly brutal analysis of what is preventing us being the church of the psalmist, of what hamstrings us changing direction in response to the urging of God like the early church, where the God making a home within us is scrabbling to be heard above the clamour of other voices.

Just some of the thoughts from that night.

We are really good at propositions – suggesting ways in which we can plan or organise or offer opinions on how to be the people of God – surely the starting place is our experience of God, where we know the presence of God dwelling in us.  But we kind of like to be in control – it takes some courage to relinquish that and to respond to the nudgings of the spirit in our lives.

Our institutionalism – more than an administrative bureaucracy but the sense of signing up of the individual to a done and dusted lifetime membership, the settling into the rules because they have been there for time immemorial, the valuing of personal salvation over the diversity of the community and all the moral judgements that go with that, the looking inwards because you are in …. the list goes on.

That being a Christian is a natural part of our lives – it’s a 24/7 indwelling of the spirit that impacts everything we do in every nook and cranny of our lives.  We talked of the experience within other cultures where the God part of us was neither muted nor a very large hammer – simply who we were.  As easily as we would talk weather and family and work, so we would talk God.  We have, in NZ anyway, become an inarticulate people of God: either personally or publically our voice is tentative, piecemeal, apologetic, uncertain or judgemental.  One comment made is that we are much better at arguing people out of the kingdom of God than in.

That we need to find the courage and the vision to live a model of Christianity that works for us in our culture and in our time.  For instance we do not necessarily connect with the concept of being washed in the blood of the lamb – or if we do there is every chance it enables us to keep the truth of it at a historical distance and thus keep control.  For the reality is we are no longer a people deeply connected with animal sacrifice, our experience is not particularly rural any more – so how do we say and show the deep and powerful truth of these words in a way that conveys the deep and abiding love of God that will give all to bring us to new life in Jesus – how do we say that in a way that will not only connect but transform. 

The early church was an explosion of God’s love into the community and the world – can it be so for us?

Of course it can – and is.   There are places in this  community, in this world where the love of God is a light to the nation, not without risk and certainly not without mistakes but with God indwelling and speaking clearly into the visions we see and the dreams we dream.   

You see, I think the Lydias and the Peters and Pauls, human and fallible as they were, knew in their hearts the absolute peace of Christ – and that peace is nothing less than the presence of God within, a presence that not only transforms us but the community and nations in which we live.  

As we gather round the table today – may we know that peace and experience the presence of the Christ who said that he would never leave us.  And may we go from here may that presence be with us in all that we do and are.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, p.478

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24 April, 2016 Easter 5

Readings: Acts 11:1-18   John 13:31-35

We pray:  May we find, among the words, the love that transcends all – the love of God for us.  Amen.

The words of hymn writer Bill Wallace
Buried in autumnal ending lies the shoot that bursts the tomb, for the letting go in autumn sows the seed that births the bloom.
Autumn is a fascinating time of year – some people’s favourite I shouldn’t wonder.   A time of endings, yet of harvest.  Where seeds are bursting out of those dried pods ready for new growth, where the leaves are frenetic in the wind.  I was walking through one of our green patches a few day ago and leaves were just everywhere, soaring and dropping then taking off again – just so much fun that you could almost hear their cries of ‘wheeeeee’. 
And we know, because we have experienced the season (some of us more than others), that in the midst of the act of stripping the tree of what was is the new budding of fresh life to come.

In the Gospel reading for today we are taken back to the moment when the giant kauri that is Jesus is about to be cut down for good – not just a few leaves falling but according to the wielders of the axe an end, a finish.  Yet Jesus knows otherwise.  He knows of the new life that will come from this act of wanton destruction but he also know that it will not be easy – and so he chooses his words with great care, and with effective simplicity, words that will echo down through generation after generation of believers – he commands love!  Love one another!  As I have loved you, so you love one another!  Get this right and all else will follow.  In these moment of urgency, final words, impending end, Jesus word is love.

Some context. 
These are words that follow immediately on from the betrayal of Judas and impending betrayal of Peter.
These are words that are given deep into the heart of a really vulnerable moment, an end of life moment when all is stark and precious.
These are words spoken into community.
These are words that command: no debate, no analysis, no promise, just action.
These are words that ask much of our living, including a bit of dying.

These are words spoken into an autumn, a time of endings and dying, words that will ensure the growing of new life, of the kingdom.  Using the words of Bill Wallace, these words of command are the shoot that bursts open the tomb, or the sowing of the seeds that, in turn, birth the bloom.

Such a hackneyed word, love.  So twisted and entangled with conditions and expectations.  Or so fluffy that it can fly faster than those autumnal leaves in a strong wind. 
So maybe it is good to consider the command to love in the shadow of the cross, in the intense moment of last good byes and the vulnerability of uncertain future rather than just in the warm glow of Easter joy. 

For then, it is living love in the midst of betrayal – loving your enemies, those who have hurt you and ignored you, those who by their very actions can threaten you and yours.  Got to be the hardest thing to do, for sure. Yet the power of love that survives betrayal is surely the open door to reconciliation and new beginnings.  It is the place of forgiveness and improbable relationships that can bear much fruit.

Living love in vulnerability.  Jesus, in his complete subjection to suffering, in his words from the cross, showed us how it is that love can be so powerful in the midst of total disempowerment.  Too often we think that we need to be strong to offer the gift of love – as if it would somehow drain us or compromise our position.  Many of you will know and have experienced it – that it is in the moments of brokenness when there are no words, no fixes that love is most absolutely present - in the hand held, the tears shed, the knowledge of God’s love within and around us.

Living love as community.  And what is community according to Jesus? It is us, it is us with them, it is the unlikely mix of Jew and Gentile, untouchables sitting down at table with the acceptables, it is diverse peoples living in the commonality of Christ – and loving each other.  It is showing to the world that this love commandment has the power to demolish walls of distrust and ‘other’ in a way the world has never seen before or since. 

Living love as command.  Red rag to a bull for many of us –
commandment – I don’t think so! At least let us decide what it means, debate it for a while: put some words around it, maybe a creed or two just to make sure we know our options here.   It doesn’t work like that.  Just do it, says Jesus.  Love each other and if you need any guidance on that – well look to how I have lived, listen to my teaching, talk and pray with me and each other, and then all else will follow – only then will the world know what it means to follow Jesus.

Living love even unto death. It is kind of tempting to just sidestep this one – metaphor, language of the day, not that relevant today.  But actually it was the reality for Jesus, it was the future for many of those disciples, and for many more who have come since.  There have been heaps of Martin Luthers and Corrie Ten Booms and Eric Liddells and Joe and Jess Blogg’s who have chosen love over their own safety.  Those who refused to fight in wars and were executed by their own side, those who fought and whose humanity became a fragile thing.  But we are not all asked to live in extreme danger to our physical lives in Jesus name - it is but a short step from there to seeking death as means of redemption, also known as martyrdom. 

We are asked, however, to understand the reality of living love even to the death as Jesus did.  On the cross Jesus turned the world upside down by his redefinition of what it means to live to the glory of God.  He knew it would take more than a few sermons or intensive teaching sessions to get the message of God’s love across to the world– extreme action was called for.  Yes the cross, but more extreme yet was the humility and love with which he endured it. He acted out the love of God on the cross – he entered into the words he had said in John 12 – ‘Very truly I tell you that unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth, it remains just single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’[1]

Falling to the ground is not the world’s idea of glory, that’s for sure.  Accolades, honour, renown it is not.  Glory, Jesus tells us in this commandment is found in our love for each other, in the coming together of all people in community, in the loving, humble service we give to each other, in the compassion we show and the care we have that all are loved and valued.  From that dying to self comes the fruit of loving community.

This command to love is to take deep root in us – and other things may well have to die to allow that – so that we can give witness to what no purely verbal argument can ever  accomplish: the glory of God breathing through the life of a Christ centred community – you and I.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] John 12:23-34