Saturday, 18 June 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 19 June Pentecost 5

Reading:  Luke 8:26-39

Let us pray:  May we hear your word for us today O God and may we respond in generous faith to all you require of us in Jesus name.  Amen.

Jesus asked the man: ‘What is your name?’  He replied: ‘Legion’ meaning many were influencing his life, or in other translations ‘Mob’ giving some indication of the sense of helplessness over the rampaging horde.
‘I no longer know who I am’ is his silent cry – the cacophony of voices in my head means I can no longer hear myself.  My name has been taken over by the multitude, the mob.
A man in deep distress, out of control, violent, driven and yet directionless, naked, chained, pleading for his life back before Jesus.  It is an evocative passage we have heard read from Scripture today, and with some quite troublesome detail in it. 

As is often the case with bible readings, it is very easy to get bogged down in detail such as debating what is meant by demons and do they exist today, or why the pigs – not very thoughtful for the owners and to allow oneself to be persuaded by demons – what was happening there?  But I don’t think that would be particularly helpful – so I am going to leave that for you to ponder in your own time if you are interested and rather pursue the question I began with:  What is your name?  Jesus asking us ‘what is your name?’ 

It seems particularly appropriate to ask this question on a day in which we have received James into the body of the Church, because in the act of baptism we are shaping the name of who James is to be.  And we are encouraging him to hear particular voices – that of Jesus Christ, that of loving family, that of his church family.  That man in chains, naked, demented: his voices were altogether different tearing him apart, driving him to acts of violence and, as said in the Message translation of this passage, ‘screaming and bellowing before Jesus ‘What business do you have messing with me?’[1]  Filled with hate, yet somewhere inside knowing enough of himself to get his out of control body into the path of Jesus.  To bring himself to Jesus attention.  Now that is something to ponder is it not?  That the meeting was instigated by the man rather than the demons – because the recognition of the danger and power of Jesus was immediately obvious to the mob voices within but maybe somewhere in there was a small voice of remembrance of self that insisted on the encounter.

I cannot help but think of the young man whose act of unbelievable horror and violence has led to such pain and devastation in Orlando.  I cannot help but recognise him as someone who had his own demons driving him to do things and wonder if he too had a small voice inside that just wasn’t able to speak into the rage and hatred that consumed him to the point of absolute inhumanity.

When the demons had gone from the man, people came and saw his sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.  Or as the Message puts it: wearing decent clothes and making sense’.  And the people’s response?  It is interesting again to compare translations: NRSV says ‘And they were afraid.’  Eugene Peterson puts it this way: ‘It was a holy moment, and for a short time they were more reverent than curious.’

What difference if the perpetrators of hate filled violence had been instead ‘in their right mind’?  What would be in this world if the voice of God, not twisted extremism had been the voice that guided their lives?

And so the question can be legitimately asked of all of us.  What is your name? Is it ‘Mob’ or ‘Legion’ or is it ‘Christian’? 

It’s a challenging question for sure. For several reasons.

How do we define mob today?  Sure we know it as extremism but is it also consumerism, prejudice, apathy and all those other things that keep us separated from God, that give power to other voices to take us over?

We asked just this question at the first Wednesday Worship but coming from a different angle?  What is it that shows we are Christian?  Are there certain behaviours we would expect to see in those who profess to follow Jesus and does it compromise our integrity as Christians if we don’t.  And particularly with reference to Romans 12, we explored how we show our belief of God with us to the world. In the end it is whose we be that shows the world who we are. The voice of God within enables us to be the loving of God without.

And the ‘what is your name?’ question becomes especially challenging if we believe that the legion of voices that destroy and devastate can be expelled by Christ.  That means that we must hold out hope that there may be a spark of connection with God for the gravest of criminals, for the vilest of deeds – and that is a huge ask for some of us. It means that we cannot indulge in huge sweeping statements of derision or judgement because we do not know God’s capacity to cleanse and heal.  It means that we must leave judgement to God for we do not know. 

It is challenging to for us to remain within the community in which we might have been found wanting – to stand up to the doubters and the finger pointers and whispered ‘isn’t that the one who…..’  and it is a challenge to the community to not be the doubters and the finger pointers and the whisperers when someone is struggling to know their name in the midst of compelling legions of noise.

It means we must recognise the cacophony of voices in our own lives and know when they are of Christ and when they are other.  That perhaps is the most difficult for most of us because those voices can be very subtle, persuasive, compelling.  Just a little tweak here and there – a small withholding of generosity or compassion, an occasional foray into prejudice or blanket judgement, an acceptance of unjust practice or unfair policy because in the end it doesn’t really affect us, here, today.

And probably the final challenge (although there are plenty more I am sure) is the way in which, knowing our name is ‘Christ follower’, life becomes incredibly disruptive and often uncomfortable for us.   When we accept recognition of the healing and saving grace of God in our lives our human instincts sometimes drive us in different directions where alternate voices are always hovering, happy to leap in at the slightest chance.  And not listening to those voices will bring us in conflict with a world does listen very closely to them sometimes.  I loved the blessing that Joy Cowley gives:  ‘May the peace of Christ profoundly disturb us all’.

So, showing infinite compassion whilst abhorring the violence of extremism is something we would all struggle with.  But what we can avoid is responding with hatred, sweeping judgement, uninformed prejudice – giving space within us for the voice of fear to take over.  

Being the people of Jesus and showing this in our words and actions is not always easy.  But what we can reject is thinking that we don’t need to try, that someone else will do it better or we might be taken into uncomfortable places.

Figuring out if the voices within that control our living are of God or otherwise calls for both vigilance and the renewing of our baptismal promise every day.  But what we don’t do is think that we can do it on without regular prayer and worship and community, God with us.  It was the belief of the day of Jesus that evil spirits cannot survive in water – so they struggle to survive in a life lived immersed in the love of God.
And for this we give thanks to God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Luke 8:35-36 The Message (MSG)

Sermon Sunday 12 June 2016 Pentecost 4 Quarterly Communion

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21   Luke 7: 36 -39, 44-48

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.

The story of Ahab and Jezebel has all the elements of a good thriller of today, does it not?  Enviously seeking what another has, a few words dropped here and there to destroy reputation, the prize within their grasp till the deceit comes back to bite them – hard – in the person of Elijah.

Ahab is the king of the northern kingdom of ancient Israel, and according to the authors of the time, ‘did more evil in the sight of the Lord than all who had gone before him’ – and they were not angels by any means.

But this act of ‘I want, I want, whatever it takes’, was just plain nasty and underhand from a petulant spoilt child: and its not the first or the last time that we hear of the corrosive nature of greed (remember the tale of king Midas?)   That story led to disaster and so did this one.  Ahab and his dynasty are destroyed.

In fact few indeed of the kings of either Judah or Israel in this troubled time walk a path of kingship that was pleasing in God’s sight.   And in response, we see the emergence of the prophets as the voice of conscience for the ill deeds of the powerful – often at real risk to their own safety as Elijah finds out.  All those early laws so carefully developed in Leviticus especially about looking after the poor and reconciliation of those treated unjustly seem to have pretty much gone by the board, particularly for those in power.  Yet God’s focus on the care of all the people means that leaders who live out of injustice and exploitation will be doomed and Elijah is the voice of God reminding Ahab of this.

We see this same compassion and mercy in the work and words of Jesus as he seeks to remind the people of a God who loves and cares for all creation, a God who refuses to let hatred and duplicity and injustice triumph.  Jesus, in sharing his perspective on the visit of the woman with the alabaster jar, reminds us of the unique relationship we have with God that continues to be misinterpreted and mislaid. 

Let us look at the story from the viewpoint of Simon for a moment.  A Pharisee, Simon has invited Jesus to his table but we can see it is a guarded invitation rather than a fulsome one.  He is cautious, not wanting to overdo the welcome and so his hospitality does not include water for cleansing, nor a kiss of welcome, nor oil for anointing.  All of these things are provided by the woman whom Simon immediately labels as a sinner and is therefore not welcome, even slightly.  His rationale: a righteous God cannot endure sinners and therefore to be right with God he needs, as a member of the elect and strict follower of the law, to avoid all contact with those he considers might taint him in any way.  And so by encouraging contact with this woman Jesus has failed to see her for what she is, a sinner, and therefore can no longer be regarded as a genuine prophet – by Simon’s standards.  He was right to be cautious, the host reflects. You will see immediately the irony of his stance in comparison with the way Jesus goes out of his way to embrace Simon’s unwanted visitor: her sins which were many have been forgivenshe has shown great love“

The relationship of the people of God with their God has become skewed in the person and attitudes of Simon.
Jesus comes back to Simon on his approach and challenges his assumptions as only Jesus can do. 
And there are several threads to that challenge.

First of all Simon has dismissed Jesus as prophet – Jesus demonstrates that not only is he beloved of God but that he is the one they are waiting for – he shares Yaweh’s authority to forgive sins, to heal and restore and reconcile.  ‘Your sins are forgiven’.  He comes from the Father, is in right relationship with God, and is redefining the law of the Lord in line with the love of Lord.

Then he redefines divine righteousness as the generous mercy of God rather than the separateness of pious living: and that the woman was more in the way of being right with God than Simon was.  Her generosity of regret and graciousness shows up not only Simon’s withheld hospitality and lack of compassion but also his blindness to his own need for mercy and forgiveness.

And the third thread: Jesus highlights the importance of the connection between grace and gratitude in our salvation rather than Simon’s understanding that by following the code of purity he will be right with God.  It’s all about relationship – ongoing and connected relationship which means God’s love and forgiveness is constantly flowing through our broken lives making us whole.  Our capacity for love and gratitude is relationally connected to our ability to receive divine love and grace and forgiveness.  And this is something the unnamed women totally gets and Simon just doesn’t.

And it is this last thread that I would like to consider a little more deeply.  Rachel Remen in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom begins one of her stories with the words “Wholeness lies beyond perfection.”  Simon wanted to be prefect, the woman found out how to be whole!  Rachel talks about her childhood and a father whose response to a 98% pass in an exam was ‘So what happened to the other 2%? Perfection she say is a major goal of people today and she calls herself a recovering perfectionist.  She goes on to say that perfectionist find it difficult to tell the difference between love and approval.  So much so that we now have to invent a new phrase for love which is ‘unconditional love’ but actually, isn’t any kind of conditional love not love but just approval, to be withdrawn at any time. 
Wholeness is something quite different – recognising that with all your flaws and mistakes and lack of perfection you are deeply and completely loved.  In God, we are made whole.
The woman who invaded the private space, who was despised by the host as an untouchable, who knew her own brokenness was the one who was made whole.
And I think we need to think about this quite deeply ourselves.  Perfect for God (doing it our way) or whole in God (love and forgiveness and grace in relationship with God).  Which way is it to be as we gather around the table today – do we come convinced of our piety or do we come sure of God’s abiding love for us, whoever and whatever we might be, in all our brokenness and in our very humanity ?  Amen

Margaret Garland

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 29 May 2016 Pentecost 2

Readings:  Galations 1: 1-12,  Luke 7: 1-10

Let us prayMay your word encourage, challenge and assure us today O God we pray – in the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Albert Einstein once said: ‘no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it.’
In an online paper, Father Richard Rohr explores the way in which he believes a transformed soul is a necessary precursor to being the people of God in action. He suggests that without the complete change of perspective that knowing Jesus brings to our very hearts, any work we do to further the kingdom in this world will be flawed and will be likely to compound the problem because we will be working with the same rational, same wisdom, ours, that caused the problem in the first place. Hence his quoting of Einstein. 

I tend to think of the centurion of today’s Gospel reading in this way – as someone who is convicted in the heart of the transforming power of Jesus and it shows in his engagement with the community in which he lives. 
He would have been one of the unbaptised believers that we were talking about last week – in his case an uncircumcised one, one who believed in the teachings of this man Jesus but because of his context (Gentile, Roman) reluctant to abandon his ethnic group to the extent of circumcision.  Yet Jesus saw him as more faithful, more committed to the way than many of those who were ostensibly part of the community of faith.

For the soldier gets the love and compassion that is at the heart of the law.  He gets that it is all about looking out for each other in community.  He gets that this man Jesus is a transforming presence in his life and that he cannot but help but be the good neighbour, the generous host, the kind and welcoming and tolerant member of the community. 

And it is intriguing too that, at least in this version of the story, the soldier never actually gets to be in the presence of Jesus.  Matthew has the centurion approach Jesus directly but Luke keeps him away and through this absence is wanting to let us know a few things here.  One is that the authority of Jesus is such that his word is enough and there is no need for physical contact to ensure healing – there is a sense that the physical encounters that Jesus has in most of the other biblical stories of healing are to meet the needs of a people who need to see to believe – the centurion needs only to ask. 
And secondly he asks through the community – of which he is not - obviously at least - a part.  He trusts the community and they do not let him down.  They trust him and convey his depth of faith to Jesus in no uncertain terms.

And then Luke portrays faith as situated within a community of hospitality in which God and others are embraced.  There is that direct link again that Rohr was talking about of the need for the transformation of the heart to effectively live out the Gospel message.  And when this happens it creates a community not just of faith but also of trust and of great things happening.

Too often I suspect we don’t quite yield the control of how it is that we are to engage with community to God, and in fact have our own plan established before we take time to be still and listen to God’s voice in our hearts.  We need to allow that the love that we encounter when we sit quiet before God permeates every decision and vision that we have as the people of God.  Discerning the guidance of the Spirit in our relationship with the community and each other must come before actions for then the power to change the world will belong to God, not to us.  To misquote Einstein: We cause the problems, let the transforming presence of God in us be the solution.

For the issues that confront us are huge.  I am not going to try to list these but rather share this particular story.  The plight of our world was brought home to me in a different way when I was looking at a couple of headlines on Stuff online – what it is that makes the news.  Amongst all the Bachelor stories and the private traumas of the stars (yes you can see that I have high regard for the website) it seemed incredibly telling to me that acts of kindness are making the front page – are they that unusual?  There was the one of a woman helping a diabetic mum with a young child who was weaving across the road and everyone thought was drunk (familiar story here?)– it has had 500,000 hits.  And there was an article about a person who (and these were the words used) had become addicted to random acts of kindness – like it was a new game.  How sad that kindness is news!  Have we lost our way completely?

The Christian community is of this world– we cannot be separate and silent nor can we be judgemental, prejudiced or take the moral high ground. We can only be who we are called to be – the community of God active in this world.  So, we ask, do we have a voice that can speak out of an absolute heart conviction of the love of God within us and, through Jesus Christ and, in the power of the Spirit, take that transforming love into the community and the world in a way that will make a difference.       

Well maybe if we take the wisdom of the reading today with us into a time of contemplation we might discern ways in which we are already a voice of love in the world and other ways in which we can perhaps further explore living out God’s plan for the healing of the world. 

For I believe that the transformed community of Christ will be something like this.
Where we all take time to contemplate the presence of God in our lives, with ears to hear and peace to draw God’s love deep into who we are.
Where we have trust in God, in each other and in the community we are part of. 
Where we are generous – not just in material giving but also in forgiveness, tolerance, patience, hospitality and respect.

This is who we are and who we are to become.

I would invite you to come forward after a time of reflection and light a candle for the acts of kindness you are already addicted to (nothing random about them), and the trust that there will be more asked of us – in Jesus name.

Margaret Garland