Saturday, 21 January 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 22 January 2017 Epiphany 3

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

Let us pray:  God of all time and all peoples, be with your people here today as we ponder the words of scripture.  Help us to have open hearts and minds to your word for us and to offer ourselves to your vision and your purpose, in the name of Jesus.  Amen

This is the time in the church year between Christmas and Lent we know as the season of Epiphany – but it can also be called ‘ordinary time’, the same terminology as can be used for the period that stretches from Pentecost to Advent- ‘ordinary time’ – the part of the church year when we are neither aiming at or celebrating Christmas or Easter, when we are not concentrating explicitly on the birth, death or resurrection of Jesus.  And in the end around 33 or 34 weeks of our 52 week church year can be called ‘ordinary time.’ If you can imagine the year as a pie chart with the liturgical colours put in, this time would be a small wedge of green – a small wedge about 2 o’clock (apologies to the digital among us) - and then there would be almost half of the circle on the opposite side – say 6-12 also green – it really is the dominant colour of our time as a church year.  Much of it, in this hemisphere, is winter time – can we say this year all of it!
And we have this bit of green (ordinary time) now – isolated, stranded from the other, on both sides, by the Christmas and Easter purple and white.  What might we read from that?  Well that there is a sense that we are being reminded in these weeks that we also need to be grounded in the ordinary, that the ‘high celebrations’ are not by themselves enough to sustain us in the hard work of following Jesus in our daily, often very ordinary, lives. 

This viewpoint is encouraged when we look at the focus of the Gospel readings over this time – from the Sermon on the Mount:  where Jesus teaches us the very basics of what it means to be a Christ follower – practical foundation stuff for us to follow everyday. 
Jesus is preparing us for understanding in a new way the meaning of the incarnation:  the intricate relationship of God and Jesus, human and divine, into which we are invited.  This ordinary time is our time to know God through the man Jesus, or as Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe says:  “We do not simply examine Jesus historically to see what he was like; we listen to him, he established communication and friendship with us, and it is in this rapport with Jesus that we explore a different dimension of his existence…. It is in the contact with the person who is Jesus, in this personal communication between who he is and who we are, that his divinity is revealed in his humanity.”

And so Jesus begins: to proclaim, to teach, to heal and to disrupt.  And what is it that he says to the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, to us today: ‘Follow me!
Follow me not in the hype of Christmas, not in the pain and passion of Easter but follow me today, just follow. 

The question then for today? How are we to walk in the light of Christ in the midst of the everyday, of the ordinary.

Maybe the first thing to say is that no day, walking with Jesus, is boringly ordinary.  Every day brings blessings, insights, acts of love and challenges.  Every day through prayer and stillness and the beauty that surrounds us we encounter God and know anew the power of love to heal and to minister.  So no never just ordinary – I may have shared this with you before but I realised after my dad died that the best way I could describe him was as an extraordinary ordinary man – no big spectacular epiphanies or moments of great celebration but it was in his everyday constancy of living well and faithfully that I found this sense of greatness, of inspiration that encouraged and grew me. 
I think too of the people that came here on Friday and spent a good part of the day preparing placards for the march championing women on Saturday morning – a small voice against the powerful roar of a political bully but believing in the ability of that voice to speak out.

I heard some beautiful words this week, from someone asked for their sense of purpose to their call: they said that it was about ‘converting Christians to the wonder of their own faith, the bigness of what faith can be.’
I think that this was where Isaiah was at – in the midst of the turmoil of the time oppression, exploitation of the poor, the rule of fear) in the midst of that, he held out and on to the vision of a world at peace, the wonder of a world where God was made known through the day to day actions and ways of living of the ordinary people.  The ‘bigness’ of faith will overcome the pain of the world.   The light of Christ will shine in the darkest corners and make a difference. 

Perhaps one of the foundation concepts that helps us here is best told by a story, and I am sure many of you will have heard this in some form or other: An American minister remembers his childhood and the fact that the family was never allowed to have the television on during dinner – except that is on Sunday when there was this show ‘Wild Kingdom’ that explored the wonders of nature.  His father said that every episode reminded him of the wonders of God’s creativity and imagination in the natural world (I’ll come back to those words later).  But there was one particular episode showing the elephant seals of Argentina – and a mum and her newly born seal pup.  Mum took off to feed and ended up coming back to a different beach.  The young boy that was watching didn’t see how they could find one another, ever, but the mother called and searched and listened until she was reunited with her pup – and the host of the programme told of how, at birth, the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted in the pup’s memory and the sound and the scent of the put are imprinted on the mother’s memory.  The boy’s father kind of nailed it when he said: ‘You know, that’s how it is with God, we are imprinted with a memory of God and God, even before we are born, is imprinted with a memory of us –we will always find each other.

That realisation that there is a presence in our lives that refuses to let go, is always filling our lives with longing and hope is a corner stone of our faith. 
So too is the understanding that the light of Christ permeates all places, all dark corners and brings peace and vision where our own is struggling. That by living in the teachings of Jesus we are spreading that light in our everyday living – generosity, compassion, justice while going about our ordinary lives. 
So too is the knowledge that we are a people of repentance – aware of our failures, able to bring them before God, able to try again, always seeking to be more like Jesus for it is there we are coming close the fulfilling of love, God’s purpose for the world, Isaiah’s ‘great light’ that would bring joy to the nations and freedom from their oppressors.

Therefore, the scripture passage from Matthew today of the invitation to follow, does, I believe, require of us a wholehearted response.  It is an invitation to a new way of living not just at the high festivals but this week, all those green weeks of the year, and we are asked to have not just the faith, the capacity to see beyond things as they are but also the imagination and work towards things as they might be. To hold to the vision of the good news within our relatively ordinary lives and to live it out with energy and enthusiasm because we truly believe that it will make a difference. 

We might not understand just what that light might look like always, we just know that it is needed and we are the vessel.  We will not always have the imagination to see just where our path might take us but we trust in the vision of God.  We might find it hard to lift our sights to the good and the peaceful and the just when we are surrounded by oppression, political lunacy and greedy systems but do it anyway – for there we will encounter the kingdom of God, again and again and again. 

The call to follow Jesus invites us to be the light that no darkness can ever put out.  Amen. So be it.

Margaret Garland

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 January 2017

Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9,  Matthew 2:13-23

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 were watching the Vicar of Dibley the other night and it struck me that the strange combinations of Letitia Cropley’s cooking (bread and butter pudding surprise –snails, parsnip brownies  ) were a suitable metaphor for the incongruity of the readings we are asked to unpack today.  For they are an unpalatable mix.   The gracious deeds of the Lord, bringing steadfast love and salvation to the world preached so eloquently by Isaiah alongside the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.  And it’s just been a few days since the joy and exultation – couldn’t we be brought back to reality just a little bit more gently, we ask. 
But no.  Much as we talk about putting Christ back into Christmas we are here today putting Herod back into Christmas too.  It is a purely awful story of obscene power, fear in one who has the capacity to command death, and we need to hear it for it was not only the reality of those days but also of today.  Children as soldiers, as slaves, as prostitutes, children starving, randomly killed and intentionally abused.  These acts of outrage are our world too.
Maybe this reading is the counter to the increasingly sanitized story of the birth of Jesus – cute shepherds and rich wise sages and a baby who is perfect to a couple who have been immortalised.  Liz Gibson says that the Christmas story is fantastic but it’s not fantasy.  But we turn it into fantasy if we make it all cosy and nice and avoid that nasty bits.  Imagine the reality, the gigantic leap of faith needed to believe this could be, the pain and anxiety of childbirth, the doubts about what actually happened here and what was to come, the awful journey and no place to stay – there would have been some grumpy moments at best and some downright terrifying stuff underlying the Christmas story as we know it.  I don’t know why we do that – try to submerge the unpalatable and raise up the sweet and lovely when life is actually not like that at all.  Life does actually stink at times and for many – all of the time.  It’s a fact.
Back to that day of unmitigated terror in Bethlehem. What might have been the words of a mother, the Rachels of the time, to Mary and Joseph if she had met them on the street after this act of horror do you think?  Ian Fraser suggests this:
Your child’s coming was my child’s going, Mary.
Your child’s living was my child’s dying.
Your child’s saving was mine’s destroying, Mary.  If Jesus saves, what means these graves?
Where was the mercy of God in this moment?  The steadfast love and promised salvation!  And we know the answer even if it is somewhat counter intuitive – God is right there in the midst as God is always in the place of hurting and pain and loss!’  For we are reminded time and time again, are we not, that the good news of Christ is with us in the midst of the light and of the darkness. 
We need to be reminded too that our God is not a God who is detached from our reality, not one who impartially observes from afar or instigates all that is wrong in the world.  We do well all by ourselves with the instigating of evil deeds and God, in Christ, became flesh into that very darkness so that we might have light in the midst of the dark.  The Isaiah reading is a classic reminder of this – the part we heard today was upbeat, praising and glorifying God but there is the danger when we pluck out a part of the bible and stand it alone – as Barbara Brown Taylor says, this passage has been airlifted out of a chapter thick with divine wrath and human despair.  In the context this is a people praising God not when all is well but when life is turbulent and sometimes downright awful.
And that teaches us something.  Life is not at its best when it is detached from the reality of life, when we live out our Christian faith in isolation from the realities going on around us.  Bad stuff does not mean that God has left us or we have done something wrong.  Putting a bubble round our lives – with all our energy going into keeping safe and secure – is not what it means to be Christian.  We actually have no excuse for thinking that way:  To be led by the spirit of a loving God means that when we see fear and pain and need around us, we head toward it and enter into it freely, risking ourselves to bring hope and healing into the world.
That’s the job description. Look it up.

Mary and Joseph, far from having to cope just with a new baby and a relatively short trip home, had to flee – become refugees in the far land of Egypt.  Mary and Joseph would have known of the slaughter and had to live with the reality that the birth of their baby had led to an act of terror.
But here is the thing – God was with them through it all, was with the suffering parents and community of Bethlehem, is with those who suffer now.  The world doesn’t get better, the horror just gets more sophisticated and sometimes it doesn’t!  We live in uncertain times now, we fear what is happening in the world, we wonder if we can survive this, we might wonder where God is?  And we might struggle with the fact that Jesus was under God’s protection and the babies of Bethlehem were not.  I find it difficult and always have to worship a God who is exclusive to some ignoring others and disagree with a commentary that suggested if we are faithful and trusting God will keep us safe from the perils of the world. That is not the God I know – rather, and especially today it is the God who comes to us in the darkest times and gives us hope, holds a light for us when all others have gone out, who loves us so much that in Christ, all the pain and suffering of the world was born on the shoulders of a baby that we might have light in the darkness.  This is the God that
I worship and adore.  God with the people of Bethlehem in their nightmare, God in the giving of a son come to save and to heal through the cross, God with the refugee and the broken.  So, in this new year, as we look toward what is to come, as we grapple with the realities of life, all that is good and all that is not, I leave you with this blessing for journeying from Iona (Linda Wright A Blessing as you journey into the New Year from 'Hay and Stardust' Wild Goose Publications)

May your eyes be opened to the wonder of the daily miracles around you and your sense of mystery be deepened.
May you be aware of the light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness can never be put out.
May you be blessed with companions on the journey, friends who will listen to you and encourage you with their presence.
May you learn to live with what is unsolved in your heart, daring to face the questions and holding them until, one day, they find their answers.
May you find the still quiet place in side yourself where you can know and experience the peace that passes understanding.
May love flow in you and through you to those who need your care.
May you continue to dream dreams and to reach out into the future with a deeper understanding of God’s ways for you.  Amen

Margaret Garland

Affirmation of Faith we stand and say together:

We believe in God, creator of the world and of all people;
and in Jesus Christ incarnate among us, who died and rose again;
and in the Holy Spirit, present with us to guide, strengthen, and comfort.

We rejoice in every sign of God’s kingdom:
in the upholding of human dignity and community;
in every expression of love, justice and reconciliation;
in each act of self-giving on behalf of others;
in the abundance of God’s gifts entrusted to us that all may have enough;
in all responsible use of the earth’s resources.

We commit ourselves individually and as a community
to the way of Christ;
to take up the cross;
to seek abundant life for all humanity;
to struggle for peace with justice and freedom;
to risk ourselves in faith, hope and love, praying that God’s kingdom may come.
(World Methodist Council, Nairobi, Kenya, 1986)