Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 19 November 2017 Pentecost 24

Readings:  1 Thessalonians 5:1-11    Matthew 25:14-30

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 redeemer.  Amen. 

‘Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’[1]
Words of affirmation by Paul to the church in Thessalonica.  Words of confidence and encouragement to a congregation in need of some reassurance, perhaps tired, perhaps finding the time of waiting for the coming of Jesus difficult, perhaps uncertain about their future, perhaps tempted to wander off course enticed by that which they can touch and engage with in real time.
We don’t know exactly what was going on in this conversation of faith 2000 years ago but we can recognise some of the same issues that we face today as we too wait and live in that waiting.
Paul exudes confidence: of course you are prepared, he says to a wondering people, because you live in the light, the faith, the life of the resurrection.  Don’t be anxious – trust in the sustaining love of Jesus present within us and work out our preparedness in everyday acts of love and service.  Be patient and be awake for we know it will happen just not when.  Straightforward really.  And yet not.  If these people were struggling with uncertainty and anxiety for their future after just a generation distant from Jesus death and resurrection, how do we, 2000 years later, find certainty and hope in a time when it’s no longer about how we do faith but whether we bother at all.

Maybe it is even harder for us.  But I don’t think so.  Perhaps different in its context but not in the need.  For in the end there are times when we all need reassurance of our purpose, our pathway and Jesus offers the same answer then as now – that he is present now and working in us and through us to bring moments of the kingdom alive now and here.  That is the sustaining truth that Paul is expressing, is it not – that we are a people of the light, always prepared to exercise our gifts and our faith in our living and service to God and others. Living in a state of readiness – for we know not where and when we shall meet the living Christ. 

For all people, communities of faith, who wonder what difference they are making, who can feel lost, helpless among the overwhelming dreadfulness of life, who retreat into their shells of anxiety and fear, personal or corporate, perhaps a helpful analogy is to live as if we are everyday opening the gifts that we are to God and to each other.  Imagine that – a present every day, an anticipation of what the day might bring, a fresh Alleluia when we realise the depth of love that has gone into that gift for us, a careful or careless unwrapping so that we can get to the thing that makes us spend the rest of the day with a grin on our face, the repeated realisation that we are loved, valued and gifted by God. 
How we open it will be different for each of us – some in prayer, others in grounding ourselves in creation, others impatient to see what the day will bring – but the important thing is that we acknowledge the gift of Jesus Christ, light in our lives.

Then the question is ‘what shall we do with it today’?  How will we use the talents we are given, fresh every morning, to encourage each other, build each other up, to live in the light of love and service that is Jesus Christ here and now?

Gifts, talents, whatever we call them are a tricky thing.  Sometimes they abound with possibilities, fit with who we know ourselves to be and our confidences, other times they are perturbing, challenging, confounding. Not an unexpected tension when we consider the ways in which Jesus encouraged, confounded and challenged and perturbed.  It’s called living in the Gospel message is it? And confident or perturbed, it is incredibly important that we place Jesus at the centre of their use.  For a confident gift can easily turn into thinking you know best for everyone and the troubling gift can cause grief if we try to ignore it.

Time for a story: it’s a once upon a time story – a king and queen needing to leave their kingdom and entrusting the needs of their country to three people: outstanding exponents of the three most important values of justice, love and peace.  Having scoured the kingdom the three were found.  When the queen and king returned the three were called to make an account – sound familiar?  The woman of justice said she had spent her time asking for people of wealth to share with the poor and people with power to listen to the powerless.  Well done and continue in this way, she was told.  The woman of love told of looking for the lonely and the unloved to share her love, of warming cold hearts and freeing people from their hurts and angers.  She too was thanked and asked to go on loving – and the king and queen would support her in her work. 
Finally the man of peace came: perplexed and troubled.  For he had tried to guard the peace within him so when he heard angry voices, he turned away, when he saw quarrels he closed his eyes to keep his peace intact.  But it didn’t work for the anger and the quarrels penetrated his heart and his peace was lost – a deep sense of failure troubled him deeply.
And the Queen and King replied:   ‘So it will ever be.  Until you use your gift, it will be lost to you.’

A retelling of the parable of today that speaks all too clearly of the perils of shutting ourselves off from exercising our gifts as people of the way.

For gifts are to be shared are they not?  Held close for a little while perhaps but then shared in service and love. 
Sometimes we are not good at sharing – perhaps scared that our gift might be tarnished in some way or that others will ridicule it as too small or unimportant.  But then we remember: its God’s gift to us – valued and valuable and to be used in God’s service.

But here is another thing – not every gift is to our liking.  Not at first anyway.  Think on the gift of the Christ child – totally unexpected, couldn’t see how that would work, not the expected parcel at all.  But for those who trust in the wisdom of God, the baby Jesus was a revelation of hope and deliverance.   We might ponder the talent that we have been given, think it more suited to someone else, but then we remember: God works in ways we do not always understand, God knows us before we are born and sees possibilities in us that we do not see in ourselves – perhaps a little trust here would be useful!

Gifts are not to be envied or given a place on the status ladder.  Personal story here.  I have often regretted that I am not a competent singer or musician, but also been in awe of those who can stand up and sing and play before others.  I tried it once and completely froze.  I felt inadequate – less than whole – but then I realised that I had a skill that others were intimidated by and that was the ability to stand up and talk before others, both in this ministry role and my previous life as a librarian. I am also in awe of those who can arrange flowers, run a marathon, or build a house.  We can’t all do everything but we can stop envying other’s gifts and begin appreciating our own.

And so, people of God, are we aware of the talents we have been gifted, are we eager to use them the building of the kingdom, today and the time to come, and is the driving force for how we live our lives Jesus Christ, made new every morning? 

May we continue to encourage one another and build each other up in the faith so that we are the undeniable light of Christ for our time.  Blessed be God who has given to us Jesus Christ in our lives.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5: 11  NRSV

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 12 November 2017 Pentecost 23

Readings:  Wisdom of Solomon 6: 12 – 20    Matthew 25: 1-13

We pray:  Gracious God, give us ears to hear, minds to reflect and hearts to respond to your word for us today.  In Jesus name.  Amen,

Peace, remembrance and wisdom and foolishness.  Quite the cauldron of meaningful and yet quite contradictory concepts for our consideration today, none of which line up in any kind of obvious harmony. 

On the 11th  hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 all hostilities ceased on the western front – the beginning of the  end to the great war and all wars, they hoped.   We do remember all those caught up in the chaos, the willing, unwilling, the naïve, callous, passionate, implacable, deeply uncertain, or following orders – we do remember them.
But we live for peace – as Christians we stand up against violence and war and everyone pretty much understands the futility of war. But they still happen – whether it’s country against country or ideologies or ethnicities – wars continue.

And then there is wisdom and foolishness – probably everyone has a different interpretation of those words.  It is foolish to think that this government will make a difference
The only wise thing to do is to look after yourself.  She is wise to sell her house now.  He’s a fool, he doesn’t take anything seriously.

Today’s readings look at foolishness and wisdom – firstly from Song of Solomon where we meet Sophia, the personification of wisdom essentially being marketed to the people.  Seek and follow wisdom, easily recognisable by her radiance and faithfulness.  She is found in instruction and law, she is the path to God.
And then we have Jesus using the then as now turbulent and emotionally charged wedding scenario to explore the meaning of living in wisdom or foolishness as we wait to the end of the age.

Think back to those people in the early church – sure and certain that Jesus would come again in the near future, probably within their lifetime.  Soon to be realised anticipation was a focus and a reality in their lives in a way that it is not in ours.  And when they realised that perhaps the grooms arrival might be later than expected, the teaching turned rather more to how to wait expectantly and hopefully for what might be a longer time.  It changed the focus and challenges our understandings of what Christ asks of us as we wait – and I think that it is something that we as a church have struggled with throughout time. 

Because Jesus, in this parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (standing for us as members of the church), is wanting to make something quite clear.  He wants us a avoid assuming that we have enough in our lamps right now.  He challenges our assumption that it is enough to simply be here, that turning up with what we think is adequate oil for the lamp is as good as it gets and that only minor lamp trimming is required.

He’s trying to shock us into realising that rather than sitting and waiting, sure of our entrance credentials for when they are needed, this parable is about how we do our living in the time of not yet.  It is an important distinction.

And so the question for us is not about just believing that Christ will come again but how we live into that time as we wait. How we shine the light of Christ in the world now when it is desperately needed – for, as a commentator pointed out, there will be no need for lamps when the banquet (however that might look) begins.

What are the struggles then, for us?
One of them relates to back where we began the sermon, where something like violence (whether officially sanctioned or not) is still so pervasive in our world.  It requires of us a stand, a voice in the market place that wisdom so powerfully occupies in our first reading.  It demands of us that we offer radically peaceful alternatives to war, that we live in ways of peace and reconciliation, not just preach it.  It is not enough that we keep silent and wait.  And it is certainly not right that we justify God on our side as we beat the opposition to a pulp.  All those who in the name of ‘God on their side’ justify violence on the weak and the vulnerable may find that their oil has not only run out but what they had has turned putrid in the waiting.

I notice some thought is now being given to the correlation in the States between those carrying out these mass shootings and their histories of domestic violence – it seems there is a strong connection.  Are we surprised? Our continuing sometimes tacit acceptance of putting one part of our society onto the top of the status heap and the rest underfoot feeds directly into this kind of behaviour.  We have churches who practice exactly this kind of dominating behaviour – to women, to children, to the different, to other cultures or colours.  They are of the belief that not all human beings, in all our wonderful diversity, are equal before God. 

How we live into the time of not yet also had impact on the way we live as church community.  I think that over time the western Christian church has played around with the belief that an act of commitment is what is needed and then you are sorted for the end time.  That was a good part of what the reformation was about – a desire to put living in the way of Christ a priority rather than paying for entry into the kingdom. 
There is a sense also that people see the singular act of baptism as all that is needed rather than understanding that we renew our baptismal promise every day.  Or that church is an attendance habit well-formed over the years or a cultural imperative.  I do think that we see a great deal less of that these days – people who are part of the church family in NZ these days are here against the odds not because it is socially expected of them – but it is still a challenge to, in the midst of all else in our busy lives, give our focus to a life lived every day in faithful community.

And then there is the doing, the engaging with the present and the future in a useful and relevant way that honours the past yet is right for the needs of now – again we talked about this last week. 
Actually during the week I came across this brilliant cartoon in of all places a ‘Self Help Cookbook’ from the 1930’s. If you can’t read the words it is ‘Hat’s off to the past’ and ‘Coats off to the future’.  Says it all really.

The other thing that this week has given me serious food for thought is the way in which some of the world is getting to grips with just and ethical ways of living perhaps better that the church is.  If any of you get the Listener you might have seen in the current one the article titled ‘Greater Good’ which explored the growth in business’s that are intent on benefitting community rather than maximising profit.  They are taking off as people come up with ideas that tackle social, cultural or environmental issues, provide work for the marginalised and value justice and sustainability and equal opportunity.  I’m not saying we should suddenly go into business but where is that energy, whatever it might look like in our communities, that speaks of our commitment to shine the light of Christ into the needs of our world now.

It provides some challenging thoughts that we at Opoho will continue to explore and delight in.

I want to finish with words of hope from a rewriting of the 23rd Psalm for us for today by Thom Shuman. One of the psalms of wisdom.  It is a psalm that has sustained and comforted and encouraged for centuries – may it do so now for us.

Sinking in a sea of stress and success, you buoy me with your living waters until I am at peace;
running down endless corridors to never-ending meetings
you detour me to the pathways leading to your joy;
stumbling through the thorn bushes of a culture which seeks to tear my soul to shreds;
you prepare a picnic in the garden of grace;
famished and peckish from wandering the shadow of sin and death you fill me with sweet tasting hope;
fleeing the very life I convince myself I am seeking
you slow me down so goodness and mercy can catch up with me
and push me into your heart.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 5 November, 2017 Pentecost 22 All Saints.

Readings:  1 John 3:1-3,   Matthew 23:1-12

Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

This is the story as Gospel of Matthew tells it. 
When Jesus got to Jerusalem, after his triumphal entry into the holy city, he went to the temple, saw and dealt with the horror of the den of robbers and stayed to heal the blind and the lame.  He had a small verbal skirmish with the temple authorities before heading out to Bethany for the night and then the next day he was back in the temple.  He told barely veiled parables against the establishment: the wedding banquet, the wicked tenants, the work ethic of the two sons -  and had thrown back at him baited traps designed to expose him for the charlatan he was by the priests – paying taxes, resurrection marriage, the greatest commandment – and on it went.  And then, suddenly, Jesus has had enough!  Enough of the tricky questions and not so subtle put downs and the lack of understandings, enough of the attempts at point scoring around the intricacies of law by the Sadducees and Pharisees. Enough. 

Chapter 23 of Matthew could quite easily be described as a rant!  And today’s reading is the beginning of it.  See these teachers and lawyers – they may well preach and teach what is the father’s will but do they practice what they teach – no way!
They are vain, arrogant and hypocritical – they misuse their authority and need to be called out on it. 

The leaders of the synagogue in Jesus time were not alone in this dislocation of behaviour and teaching.  We can see it all around us now and throughout history.  Faithfulness to God stumbles and instead becomes self interest, comfort, and authority for its own sake.  The preachers, teachers at the temple in Jerusalem are expounding the doctrine and not hearing their own teaching. 

Pious and authoritative words convictions do not a faithful person make!  Delegating the living faithfully to others does not equate to being faithful. 
Faithfulness is in the orientation of one’s heart and life – to God.  And true faithfulness to God demands of us a form of radical egalitarianism that sees all people, despite our many inequalities of abilities, skill and status, as absolutely equal before God.  This quote from Richard Niebuhr says it beautifully: ‘God is the common centre, to which all humanity is related: it is by reference to and in respect of our relation to that creative centre that we are equal’.  That is what we do every time we gather round the table – one body unified and equal before God.

Where am I going with this? Well, it strikes me that this has some real challenges for us today – as we look at what it means to be the saints for our day, as we use our skills and capacities in God’s service and how that might look in our future as a church body here in Opoho.

One thing to recognise is that our failure to grasp faithful living in God’s way for all of us is not confined to church leadership alone.  While power lends itself to abuse, no less so in the church, it is the thinking that has grown out of the contemporary liberation and feminist theology that there equally can be a form of withdrawal from faithful action by those who consider themselves further down the pecking order.  Here the unwillingness to act or live faithfully is manifested in a denial of ability, of a belief that we have nothing to offer and so do not need to contribute.  Both pride and humility can equally encourage denial of human responsibility to live as God’s people.
I was walking down to church on Sunday pondering the phrase ‘All care and no responsibility’.  It’s quite commonly used in our world now – mostly to stave off any suggestions of culpability when things go wrong – but I would suggest it that for us it needs to be all care and all responsibility for all of us. 
Because aren’t we family – isn’t that our strength as the faithful here in Opoho and in the wider church – family that accepts responsibility to not just hear the word of God but to live it and in doing so to share the joy of Christ with positivity, action and enthusiasm. This church body will not survive without all of us actively being the hands, feet and heart of Christian living and action in whatever way we can.  We can’t leave the vibrancy of this heritage of faith we have received from the saints that have gone before resting on a few shoulders – it needs all of us to listen and to live out the teachings we hold as the basis of our faith.  And we all have something to offer – prayer, engagement, practical skills, time, energy, teaching, listening, pastoral, hospitality.  Not just occasionally but bursting out from the core of our faith – God within us.
Furthermore we are at a bit of a crunch time – at our Parish Council retreat it would be safe to say we were all a bit discombobulated by the news that our church building now has an A listing. We were prepared for having to make decisions based on bad news – do we give up on the building, do we spend all our reserves making fixes so we can stay – and suddenly that we have a different question in front of us.  Sure there are still questions and challenges about our building but let us concentrate on our living for today.  What does it look like for a faith community look like when our hearts and life are orientated towards God in faithful living.

Some thoughts – not to blame but to encourage, not to demand but to see opportunity.

How many of us deep down think that the only time we come alive as a church body is Sunday morning.  That worship not on Sunday and not in the format of Sunday is an optional extra.  That gathering and exploring and fellowship is best left to Sunday.  The doors remain closed the rest of the time.  How can we be alive during the week?  It doesn’t always have to be our energy or our time – but sometimes it does.

We have just had a working bee – fantastic turnout and much work done.  But guess what we didn’t get to the bit of garden that people walk by every day on Signal Hill Rd – two working bees a year are needed but so is a regular commitment throughout the year – and when that happens we see  when we look at the Farquharson frontage – thank you to those who do that but we need more people to join in.

Who among us has reviewed, wondered if our giving to the church can increase for this financial year?  Do we wait for the prodding or do we take responsibility for meeting the increase in costs that each year brings.

How do we turn to face the world, how do we not just build our faith but also serve the community we live in a way that is faithful to Jesus teachings – grab the reins of mission and run with it, knowing that it will demand all of those things we bring - prayer, engagement, practical skills, time, energy, teaching, listening, pastoral, hospitality. 

So for the people of God, the  commitment to the continuing of the journey of faith of those who have gone before into our future is the responsibility of us all.  It will look different, seem difficult at times but so it was for them. 

And here is the good news in which we put our trust and hope.  We heard the words of 1 John.
For those who have gone before and we walk in the way of Jesus as the children of God: that is what we are.  And as part of God’s creation we are not only held in love but also given renewing strength to be a faithful people in the midst of all that life throws at us.  God within us enables us to live in the example of Jesus despite our uncertainties and doubts and difficulties.  God within us allows us to live as Christ followers uncertain of the future but trusting in the promise that is a time of complete reconciliation, justice and peace before us.  Faithfulness demands of us that we work for the transformation of the world we live in now. 
We are the beloved of God and, as such, are the saints of body of Jesus in this place and this time.  Praise be to God for the faithfulness of the people of God in the time past, in our time and in the time to come. Amen.

Margaret Garland

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Reformation Sunday: Opoho Presbyterian Church 29 October 2017

Readings: Matthew 22: 34-40,  Romans 1: 16-17, 1 Peter 2: 4-10

This year, Tuesday 31st of October, the evening before All Saints Day, (Halloween) marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the day he challenged the authority, teaching and practice of the church of his day with his attack on the selling indulgences guaranteed to reduce the suffering of your relatives in purgatory.

You may wonder how the Scripture readings relate to this story? And perhaps also the hymns, so in brief:

Romans and I Peter may be what we would expect on Reformation Sunday Luther’s breakthrough text – we are made right in the sight of God by trust / faith. The ideas in I Peter that everyone, not just clergy, are part of the religious leadership of the church, its priesthood and its mission.

Matthew is also relevant: the Reformation was about conflict where religion and politics came together in an explosive mix. The greatest commandments Jesus identified remind us:

1) - treating others as we would be treated, applies to how we do history as well as how we live in the present. Something we have been slow to learn.

2) – we worship God with our whole selves, both heart and mind. Luther held those together, the Calvinist tradition has been more comfortable with the philosophical, the legal and the theological than it has been with the aesthetic, the artistic, and the world of feelings. Individually this may be a matter of personality and gifts, but as a church we need both. I think Opoho does this well, but it is something to hang on to.

  • ·            Now Israel may say, and that truly – survival after war and conflict
  • ·         E te Atua - each in our own language, and learning from the language and faith of others: translation and interpretation continue
  • ·         A mighty stronghold is our God – trusting God in the midst of conflict.
  • ·         By Gracious Powers” – trusting God when you may well not survive.

The Reformation Story
Luther was not the first to question whether the church really had control over heaven. Socially, economically and politically it was a time of change. Forces of nationalism, the economic and political power of new cities and universities coupled with threats of Islam at the gates and memories of the black death, undermined old authorities. New ideas were in the air and the new technology of printing was the media revolution of the day.

The fresh appeal of learning called scholars back to the foundations of knowledge, including the scriptures in Greek, the teachings of the early church.

Luther was a superb publicist and printers made fortunes getting his writings and tracts and the wonderful and often wonderfully rude woodcut illustrations into print. His ideas spread to Northern Europe. His writings were smuggled into Scotland. Students soaked up his vivid condemnations of the old order. Business men, traders, and universities conspired. They were exciting and dangerous times.

In Switzerland in 1522, Ulrich Zwingli started the Reformation in Zurich by the simple act of encouraging the eating of sausages in Lent. In Paris, a young French lawyer and student of philosophy, John Calvin, was linked to anti-Catholic placards which appeared overnight on 17 October 1534, including one on the King’s bedroom door. in England Henry VIII had found it expedient to break with Rome for the messy business of a royal divorce, and the financial benefits of closing down monasteries and selling them off. However dodgy, the process encouraged forces for reform.

If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time in any of this your life was in danger. Calvin fled Paris and was called to support the Reform in Geneva. People like George Wishart in Scotland and Guido de Bres in Belgium (some of whose descendants still live in Dunedin) were martyred. Wishart’s friend John Knox was captured in St Andrews where he supported those who hung the Cardinal out his palace window in revenge for the death of Wishart. Knox spent two years as galley-slave before joining Calvin in Geneva and then taking the Reformation to Edinburgh in 1560. Before Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1559 her half-sister Mary persecuted Protestants and burnt Archbishop Cranmer and others at the stake. Many went into exile in Frankfurt and Geneva until it was safe to return un Elizabeth, though struggles continued about what sort of church England would have with Elizabeth as head. Would it be like Calvin’s Geneva? Would it still look Catholic? In Scotland could Presbyterianism have bishops or was that a door to control by the King and a step back to Catholicism?

Good out of chaos
For many the Reformation heralded the rediscovery of true Christianity after the dark ages of medieval corruption. Others knew that the past was not all bad, and the story is not so one-sided.
It is right that Protestants celebrate Luther and the Reformers for giving power to laypeople, encouraging the reading of the bible for ourselves, and articulating the faith that we are made right in the sight of God just by trusting our lives to God’s mercy.

Having the bible in their own language meant that Churches became places for sermons not just sacraments. Psalms were to be sung. New music was composed. Theology was reinvented and hotly contested. The discipline of new ways was imposed as the marks of the true church took shape not around its history but around its faithfulness to the bible read with fresh eyes.

The Reformation changed how we think about God, about work and about God’s purpose in everyday life; it changed ideas about sex and marriage as good gifts not a second best for those who lacked self-control; about the church being a fellowship where we engage with God’s word through Christ and the scriptures in our own language; a community which is not afraid of science, business and education, and one where it is possible to share in its responsible governance. All believers were priests in the household of God, all were like the stones in a building, living stones, like Christ, once rejected, but with Him, able to share in the purposes of God’s kingdom in this life and in the life to come.

We can still celebrate these things. They have not gone away in the different worlds we live in 500 years later. I am pleased to belong to a church where I can be married and be authorized to teach and to share the sacraments. One where I am expected to be responsible to my fellow elders and ministers, yet have freedom to think and to read and to pray and to share God’s message as I understand it.

There is another side
But there are other things which need to be said. Catholicism is still part of me, and it too is a place where I belong.

For centuries, Protestants identified the Church of Rome with the Anti-Christ in the Book of Revelation. It was a reading of the bible which made sense at the time, yet it does not stand in the longer run of history. God did not give up on that church. In the Reformation there were many Catholic leaders who sought to accommodate Luther’s teachings. Today, Pope Francis is recognized as a religious leader by Christians generally, including those who do not see themselves as Christians at all.

The Reformation was messy. Once the authority of the church to decide was rejected, everything had to be worked through afresh. And you cannot re-examine every teaching, every practice, every ritual, in just a year or two. The role of the church in society cannot be reinvented without reference to other sources of power. There is not actually some blueprint in the bible you can just plonk down in another time and space. In the conflicts of the day religious and political loyalties easily aligned making the political, economic and theological strands of conflicts impossible to disentangle. Protestants collected stories of Catholic atrocities, but there were Protestant atrocities as well. The memories of these were collected and cultivated well past their use-by date.
When Christianity came to New Zealand it came with a legacy of these debates and how they unfolded in European history.

Yet today relationships have become warm beyond recognition. This year Catholics and Lutherans and other Protestants around the world have shared together in services commemorating the Reformation era.

Generous and creative things have been said. Many issues have been worked through. We all recognize the priority of God’s grace over human effort; the temptations of mixing money and religion are no longer seen as peculiar to one tradition, and nor are the sins of the flesh. People want to face the future in a common faith. Scripture is valued by Catholics. Protestants acknowledge that tradition is part of helping us discern what God is saying to us. Although when Luther appealed to conscience and scripture it counted for little in Rome, but today an appeal conscience is today taken seriously in Catholic social and ethical teaching.

It has helped that people brought together by the Charismatic movement in the 1970s remained connected through the frameworks for a sustained spirituality provided by Ignatian Spirituality and the prayers of the Divine Office.

There is something precious here out of the dust of battles of long ago that we need to keep alive as we face new challenges about the environment, poverty, ethics, and the sincere difficulty many have recognizing that God really does exist in love for each and in all circumstances.

It can seem that for all practical purposes the Reformation is over. I am not sure:

In 2002 Yvonne Wilkie and I were in Rome as part of an archives conference. It was an unbelievable setting on the Janiculum hill overlooking St Peter’s Square, the ancient city down to the Tiber on our right. Below us the house of the Augustinian order where Martyn Luther had stayed in 1510. Above to the left above the façade of the basilica, enormous statues, including of St Peter with a huge key; its message of religious authority apparent to all.

By the time Luther left in 1511 his disillusionment with the church, its penitential practices for was growing. For us we could acknowledge the temptations of power and ritual and grandeur, but they were not our temptations, and there were other things about people’s faith which seemed to rise above it all.

Yet it could be confusing. Our archives conference coincided with the canonization of Josemaria Escrivá the formidable founder of the Catholic order, Opus Dei. Not all our Catholic colleagues were thrilled.

However unreliable, you may have learnt of Opus Dei through the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code.

Walking across St Peter’s square later when the crowds had gone, I picked up a service book dropped in the plaza. The singing had been magnificent, and I was interested to see what they had sung.
I was surprised to see Martin Luther’s A mighty fortress is our God. Like Luther, Escrivá emphasized how ordinary Christians should worship God in their work and daily lives. Perhaps that was a point of commonality. What astounded me was on the last page – it had a statement about the indulgence you would receive from having been there at the service.

Just when you might think the Reformation is over, it seems you come across something which makes you wonder what has changed?

What might we say?

1)                  Differences between Christians are not all resolved and new ones will arise in every generation. What we need to learn is how to handle them better.
2)                  Also, every generation sees the past differently. In 1917 for instance, Protestants saw the Reformation as about religious freedom, democracy, rational education and deliverance from superstition. Catholics then saw their response as about restoring discipline and equipping them to resist the forces of materialism, communism and modernity, as well as the injustices of the Protestant English and Scots in Ireland
3)                  Fortunately, in most places today neither Protestants or Catholics have political power over the other. Responsible scholarship is no longer partisan. There are differences to be explored and arguments to be had, but not battles to be won at any cost.
4)                  In every generation we need markers of Christian identity that make sense to us and to others. For both Catholic and Protestant then and now, Baptism and Communion, have been places of encounter with Christ and the love of God. They remain recognizable and important however they are explained. But there will also be markers of difference to be respected not deplored.

Each of us will have our own stories. Whatever they are, those stories matter; The symbols stories and rituals of faith we grew up with, remain part of our formation as people and as Christians.

John Roxborogh

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 8 October 2107 Pentecost 18

Readings:  Psalm 19, Isaiah 5: 1-7,  Matthew 21: 33-46

We pray:  O God open to us your word from scripture – may we hear your truth for us and take it into our hearts and minds, forever changed, forever challenged, forever encouraged.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

The parable of the wicked tenants. One of the more bloodthirsty parables of the Gospels, our reading for today is graphic in its challenge.  Innocent people killed and greed and power prevailing.  It has an obvious and pointed message – the prophets and then the son killed by the people who they wanted to restore into right relationship with God.  They didn’t want to know.  Like all the stories that Jesus tells, we are compelled to engage and dig deeper, and with this parable in particular all the more so as it is remarkably helpful for us as church today – this is not a story we can leave in the mists of a less enlightened time but one we need to bring right into the living rooms of today.

The analogy of the vineyard is not new in the scripture – and we have heard today the same imagery from Isaiah where we have a God who is perplexed and weeping over the destruction of his vineyard, of Israel.  A vineyard planted with all tenderness, nurtured with love, all the supports put in place, but despite the preparation and the care, the vineyard turns toxic - producing thorns and briars – ruin and destruction because of unfaithfulness. 
Jesus is drawing on this teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures as he paints a picture for the people of his time.   And we too need to put ourselves into the contemporary vineyard that is God’s place of welcome and provision in the 21st century.  And we find some unsettling moments when we do.

And so we begin to unpack the parable of the wicked tenants in our history and for today.
John Calvin, writing 500 years ago certainly saw the significance of this parable for his time – and identified two main points that a church of any time should consider:  one is that we are to expect rejection of the Gospel, rejection of Jesus not just from people outside the church but also from those within, from religious leaders who are given responsibility for making Jesus Christ know but who in fact completely reject the cornerstone of their church and go the wrong way.  Secondly Calvin reminds us that, whatever contrivances are mounted against the church from inside or from without, God will be victorious.

Let us think about the first of these propositions – that of rejection. And the first thing to define is what is being rejected.  The rejection is not in the end of the bible or a system of ideas or propositions inviting assent.  It is instead a rejection of the defining issue of our faith – a rejection of Jesus.  The tenants did not kill an idea, a principle or a system of doctrine, they killed the landowners son!  The gospel comes to us as a person. 

So how might we be rejecting the person of Christ, the cornerstone of our faith, today?
Of course we know well the attack on faith, any faith, from without - people especially swallow the persuasive words of those who aggressively and in the name of rationality reject any form of ‘greater than’.  Their books are on the best seller lists these days, in the airport bookshops, make the news online.  We don’t see nearly as much space given to the well thought out and engaging writings on faith or belief. They’re just boring unless they are extremist writings in which case they are either placed in with comedy on the shelves or labelled terrorist and, whichever way, usually the entire faith community is tarred with the same brush.  And then there is the other effective rejection -  the apathy, mockery, irrelevance, ears unable or unwilling to or not bothered to hear.

The attack from within, though, is much more insidious and dangerous.  For we trust those in leadership generally, and this parable is a timely reminder that it is so easy for us to be led (or lead) by the nose into paths that are completely at odds with the way Christ leads us.    
‘Let us kill him and get his inheritance’ takes on a dark meaning when we see the tenants in the light of leadership in the church today – money rules, hatred, violence, self praise.  But we are not like that are we? Oh yes.
I have a story that beggars belief but one that point us to the distance we can put between Jesus love for the world and the way in which so called Christian leaders have usurped that to their own understanding, killing the landowners son again and again and again.  Hear this and weep:
Written by an evangelical pastor in the U.S.:
Sitting at a dining room table full of fellow evangelical pastors, I asked how many were “carrying” (a euphemism for being armed with a concealed handgun). They all raised their hands. Then I asked, “What determines when you draw your gun and prepare to shoot another human being?” There was awkward body language and mumbling. After a few seconds passed, one older man said, “I’ll tell you what determines whether I draw the gun or not. It’s the man’s skin colour”.  And he went on to say black people don’t belong and are so much more dangerous for thinking they do – so I shoot ‘em.  Everyone around the table nodded in agreement.  The writer was unable to reconcile that he was one with them in faith but not, as he put it, in guns and race.  But I would challenge that – and say that their faith has gone toxic if it allows them to justify such attitudes in the name of Christ. By all that is holy, church leaders who act like this are not Christ followers.

Perhaps this story to us is just an anathema – too outside of our experience to begin to comprehend – but there will be things we are doing and attitudes we are living by that are also abhorrent to the one who is the cornerstone of our church.
Some thoughts (and I suspect you will have more):
Ø  Where preachers and leaders have made the rules of being church in direct conflict with the teachings of Jesus’ for example feed the hungry, look after the poor – then we are turning on our fruitful vineyard into desert. 
Ø  Where we are only concerned for self or denigrate those who think differently, we have lost sight of the complexities and rhythms and differing talents needed in the vineyard – then we are turning the nurturing soil into wasteland.
Ø  When we preach hatred and division, supremacism rather than equality and violence rather than peace – well then we have truly become the same as those wicked tenants – actively killing all that is right and good and loving and replacing them with our ideas of right inheritance – actually not so far from that story from the States after all.  Think the holocaust, slavery, subjugation of women, Soviet gulags, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, treatment of Maori in this country….

But before we get too down, let us remember that Jesus does not leave us in the depths of despair, nor does he allow that God gives up on us.  He reminds the leaders of the church of the day that those who choose their own way over the way of Jesus will fall, and that others will be found who will produce the fruits of the kingdom, who will follow the teachings of the person of Jesus, who will persevere, will be faithful because they see the purpose of the vineyard owner through the son who comes to reconcile and heal.

The cornerstone is secure, nothing will move it.  The attack on Jesus is ultimately fruitless – because, we are told,  nothing we can do will alter that fact that God has provided the vineyard that will bring forth fruit for the kingdom.  And those who think they can change the nature of that fruit to their own purpose will fail.   
God has prepared everything we need for fruitful living – planted a vineyard for us that offers us all we need and placed Jesus at the centre of it - it is for us to respond, welcoming and walking in the way of Jesus or rejecting him in false living and blind teaching.   
And only each of us can answer what our response will be – but please let us not be the tenant farmers, blind to the approaches of a God who loves us, nurtures us and delights in us, people who have lost sight of the one who gives us all that we could ever want or need. 

It seems right to finish with the words of the psalm, the words that remind us of God’s gift to us, the people of God.  The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul;  the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure, enduring for ever; the ordinances of God are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. 

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 October 2017 Pentecost 17 World Communion Sunday

Readings:  Philippians 2:1-13  Matthew 21:23-32

Jesus table manners based on a writing by John Bell[1]

We pray:  Loving God, we pray that we will hear your word for us today – that our ears, our hearts and minds would be open, hearing again your words of encouragement and anticipating new truths for us to explore.  Amen.
I often wonder if we realise just how radical Jesus was.  For the time he was seriously subversive, somewhat rude and definitely a thorn in the side of those who wanted people to behave decently and in good order. In the reading from Matthew he is speaking his mind – and in the way of great debaters, tangling his opponents with questions that have no obvious answer and stories that turn you back to front and upside down. And invariably, as we read in scripture, Jesus makes his final verbal thrust with clarity and precision.  No one could go away from that encounter in the temple without a very clear understanding of the point made.

And John Bell suggests that one of the places that Jesus was at his challenging best was around the table – which is a little surprising considering how we can see the table as a place of peace where all differences are put aside in the unity of Christ.   Let us see where John Bell takes us.  He begins with a table story of his own experience but I suspect many of us might well have our own example to recount:
First of all he speaks of three things that people in his home town of Kilmarnock referred to in muted tones – generally to keep the peace we suspect.  They were cancer, Catholics and women’s troubles.  And he recounts the story of a Mrs Dunlop who was particularly adept at random embarrassing asides– and she saved her best for anything Catholic.  The whispered ‘Did you know that she is descended from a Catholic great grandmother?’ as a women walked by.  So the day came when, with great trepidation, her grandson came to dinner with his fiancé –who happened to be Catholic.  And the extended family were on edge, hoping against hope that no inappropriate words would suddenly emerge from the Dunlop matriarch.  And all went well until, in the middle of a particularly stodgy rice pudding, apropos of nothing out came the words: ‘Well there is one thing I have always said about Catholics – they are good singers.’  Lousy timing, embarrassing moment, choking in the indigestible rice pudding.  And John Bell finishes the story by saying how like Jesus was this woman.

That brings us up short for a moment.  Because, says Bell, Jesus at a meal, inevitably said the right things at the wrong time.  At the least people were upset, and at best he created livid consternation.  Makes us think twice about speaking of the passive ‘unseen’ guest that Jesus is at table and I wonder too if it challenges our insistence on silence at we eat and drink the bread and wine of communion?  Be good to think about that sometime.

What were Jesus’ table manners really like?  In the gospel of Luke, says John Bell, there are ten different occasions of Jesus at table and every single one has an element of surprise at least. 
In Levi’s house he sat down to eat with tax-gathers and sinners – and he insults his critics by saying that perhaps they need his company more than those who are pickled in self-righteousness.
He insults Martha, the industrious housekeeper, by telling her to stop fussing about whether there is enough gravy in the stew and to sit down and listen to him.
He dines in the house of Simon the leper and disgusts his host by not only allowing a woman to wash his feet with her tears, but by telling Simon that the woman is showing him up when it comes to real hospitality.
He confounds the disciples in an upstairs room when, in the middle of a fellowship meal, he reveals an awkward truth - that one of the company is going to betray him.
Remember him being chastised by his distinguished Pharisee host for forgetting to wash the hands, and his reply ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate. But inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools…..’
Can you imagine the silence that would follow that outburst?
Makes Mrs Dunlop seem positively benign.  You can’t imaging the rotary club of the day inviting Jesus as the after dinner speaker can you?

But there is another point that Bell makes: that meals taken in the presence of Jesus are a blessing to some and a provocation to others.  Think of each of those examples. So what is Jesus trying to do.  Why so abrasive? 
John Bell suggest that it is really quite simple – that Jesus is exposing what no one else has noticed – that their obsession with detail, their prissiness about what is right is covering up the fraudulence of their existence, that in identifying the wrong in others was all about preventing others recognising what was wrong in them. 

His words: ‘But Jesus is not impressed by the outward display, be it piety or righteousness or good manners or perfect procedure, if that is at odds with an inner self which is emaciated, damaged or denied. 

And he suggests that when we come to sit around the Lord’s table, we are offered a fragment of bread and a sip of wine through which Jesus Christ in his fullness enters into us to deal with the dirt and the frustration and the yearning which too often our external lives disguise.  And in that same moment of sacrament God provides a specific moment and a specific means whereby we can be healed, forgiven, blessed and made new again.

And with John Bell I say to you:  around the table, Christ enters our soul – will we make room? Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Table Talk from States of Bliss and Yearning by John Bell, Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2008 p. 93-99

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24 September, 2017 Pentecost 16

Readings: Jonah 3:10 - 4: 11 Matthew 20: 1-16

We pray:  Gracious and merciful God, we pray that you would speak your truth into our hearts today, that we would challenged, encouraged and renewed to your service. Amen.

A sermon of two parts today – but one message: the grace and mercy of God is abundantly generous and is for all people. 
A statement that Jonah in our first reading absolutely disagreed with – when asked by God to deliver a message denouncing their wickedness to the people of Ninevah he ran in the opposite direction, not so much because he was afraid but because he suspected that if they listened they might repent and then God would forgive them. Because he knew his God’s ridiculous capacity for mercy. And Jonah didn’t think that they deserved any second chance. 

Whatever else you might think about Jonah – he had gumption.  Not a lot of wisdom but a heap of attitude. We know the story of his flight and God’s relentless pursuit – we all know the story of the his voyage at sea, his being chucked overboard, his encounter with a whale  – and his realisation that it was his own actions that had led him to this.  His prayer to God when he realised his predicament was deeply contrite for he realised how foolish he had been  – ‘as my life was ebbing away I remembered the Lord’. 
But then the graphic emotive description of life and death storms and grief that accompanied Jonah on the sea voyage become somewhat pedestrian when we hear the next part of the story. He was spewed up onto the land and walked to Ninevah. – he entered the city, cried out the words, ’40 days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown’.  The people heard the truth of his words and threw themselves on God’s mercy.  Jonah was right about the outcome, he knew that God would respond with compassion and thought that was wrong – that they should be punished for their evil ways. 
Jonah, who himself had pleaded for forgiveness and with it his life whilst in the belly of the whale wasn’t prepared to see that same mercy offered to the people of Ninevah! Seriously double standards here.  Hence the episode outside the city - the sheltering bush being eaten by the worm – lesson number two for Jonah – that if he valued the shade of a bush he had no other relationship with, how much more would God be concerned that the 120,000 people of Ninevah should see the error of their ways and come to a way of right living again.  We don’t know if Jonah needed more lessons in his life but we would suspect he did.

The teaching for us from this story – the persistent love of God that pursued both Jonah and the people of Ninevah for as long as it takes to get them on the right path and understand the justice and love that is the way of God.  Do we recognise that same guidance to shape our lives in the way of Jesus – that we are forgiven seventy times seven, that God’s grace and mercy are beyond generous when we stumble and fall and that no amount of turning our back will remove God from our lives and our living.

And it was lesson time too in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard.    Whether this speaks into the relationship of long-time Jewish Christians with newly arrived Gentile converts or the fact that some work hard and long hours for the kingdom and want others to prove themselves before they are fully admitted – Jesus reply is the same:  All I have promised you I have given you – I choose to offer that same to all who come to me! 
The complaining servants remind us that we can be so busy worrying about what it is that we don’t have or a perceived inequity in our lives that we forget to be grateful for what we do have
Where we see equal pay for equal work – Jesus offers a living wage to all.  Where we would carefully watch to see that fairness is upheld – God distributes generous grace so extravagantly that it actually deeply troubles us – it upsets our sense of right and wrong, our belief that we earn our way and receive that which we have worked for. 

There is a fundamental difference here: it's actually a place where our culture and our faith clash quite profoundly.  The abundance of God’s grace and mercy to us is hard for us to replicate to others.  We, like Jonah, like the labourers, get angry if we feel people haven’t paid their dues in some way.
We see it in the ethic that says people at the bottom of the economic heap don’t deserve decent housing, medical care, work opportunities.
We see it in the policies of governments that allow tax avoidance by those with money to burn when that money would contribute to the good of all.
We see it in the demeaning walk of shame that those in the welfare system encounter every day.
We see it in a society that says self comes first and community second.
We see it in the child poverty, the crisis in mental health, the consumer culture that exploits the poor and the powerless…. and so the list goes on.   

At the time of writing this I do not know the outcome of the election but I would hope and pray that our generosity as a nation to those who are still standing waiting to be picked at the end of the day would be the same as that landowner.  That our plenty would be distributed in a way that values all people despite their marketable skills or lack of them.  That would be the Jesus way and so is our way.

And that is for me the teaching from this story: God’s generosity is a gracious and undeserved gift to all people.  Where we look for equity, we are surprised by generosity.  Where we talk about deserving, we find love poured upon us without conditions.  When we look inwards at the fairness or not of our own situation, unexpected generosity is happening all around us and we have missed the celebration.

Our challenge is to turn our world view upside-down; to stop insisting that the books balance and instead to see the world through the love and grace and mercy of an insistently generous God who will not take no for an answer.  Amen.

Margaret Garland