Saturday, 20 August 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 21 August 2016 Pentecost 14

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

We pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What might this look like? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 7 August 2016 Pentecost 12

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

Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Garland

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