Saturday, 18 February 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 19 February 2017 Epiphany 7

Readings:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18     Matthew 5:38-48

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

We hear the commands for living in the way of God in the reading from Leviticus. Practical, caring, catching love to neighbour in all of them.  Then we come to the reading from the Gospel of Matthew this morning/evening, and perhaps quietly went ‘well that’s one of those ‘if only’ passages’ so we will just hold it loosely and move on.  What Jesus asks of us is problematic and can’t always be followed.  So we can’t be perfect as God is perfect.  

I want to start with a story of someone who came up against this and other teachings of Jesus in very practical way.  It sounds a bit contrived but they, lets say Joe, decided to live for a year following every tenet of Jesus teaching to the letter.  And so it was obvious what he had to do when, early in the piece, a person came to the door, telling a story of deprivation and need.  Joe gave them what they asked for and then, remembering the teaching of Jesus that if they ask for your coat, then give them your cloak as well, he gave much more that he was asked for. It was quite a few months later that there was another knock on the door, and lo and behold it was the same person with the same story and a look of expectation on their face.  Who can blame them?  I wonder what Joe did and what Joe was tempted to do?

 This is the kind of impasse that we often come to in these teachings of Jesus when we struggle to understand the context of the words and yet still try to apply them to us today.  And it often means that a very important teaching is put aside as not so relevant.  Jesus’ troublesome truths challenge us again this Sunday.

A colleague put me in touch with a paper by Walter Wink entitled ‘Jesus’ Third Way’[1] – some of you may be familiar with it – and it raises some very interesting challenges on our interpretations of this piece of scripture.
He first of all identifies the ways in which he feels Christians over the centuries have mis-interpreted this passage, where we believe that turning the other cheek means we are to allow ourselves to be beaten into submission while doing nothing.  Giving your cloak  and going the extra mile can also engender a sense of passive over indulgence in the hope that it will make a difference. 
Do we see Jesus in this submissive passive behaviour – we do not. 

Yet the only other alternative seems to be to hit back, only give what is asked for which are contrary to the teaching that we are to love, and love generously.  So in our desire to follow both the true word and to be realistic about our living in this world we have created what we call ‘just wars’ – where the need for protecting ones neighbour supersedes this impractical passivity – and we enter into the violence. 

Hence the title of the article – The Third Way.  Wink questions the interpretation and points to the similar phrase used several times in the Epistles, where we hear said ‘do not repay evil for evil’.[2]  And he says that the Scholars version of the verses in Matthew is the most helpful translation – ‘Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.’  Jesus is not saying to do nothing and be browbeaten into the ground – no, he is telling us to stand up to evil but not with the weapons of evil.

A little context here might help.  Jesus here says something quite strange and superfluous if we are talking about someone hitting you and you not hitting back.  He tells us what cheek we would be first assaulted on: the right one.  And as the left hand was, in those days, considered unclean and you could be excluded from the temple for any gesturing, then the right cheek could only be a backhanded slap.  And that was used only to insult, humiliate, degrade.  It would be used on those over whom you had control, seeking to put them in their place.  So turning the other cheek, Wink explains, was actually refusing to submit to that treatment – the backhand would no longer work.  And the fist wouldn’t be used – that kind of fighting was only between equals.  The beginning of social revolution, he suggests.
So Wink says that what Jesus is actually saying is "Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don't answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal."

In the same way he sees the handing over of the cloak as well as the coat not as super generous giving but rather in the context of a poor man being taken to court over his debt and, knowing he couldn’t beat the system that went right to the door of Roman exploitation of the Jews, telling him to walk out of there naked, effectively letting them know what the debtor thinks of their justice and hoping that it would lead to some serious rethinking.  For me this is a bit more of a stretch but interesting none the less.
The extra mile, similarly, came from the ruling that the Roman soldier, while able to impress into service any person on the street (remember Simon of Cyrene) could only be made to, for instance, carry their packs for a mile.  The extra mile returns the initiative to the oppressed, shakes the foundations of what is expected – is revolutionary and unsettling.  Imagine the soldier trying to figure out how to respond, how to get his pack back even.

So far from these words of Jesus offering only violence or submission, they are, according to Wink, in fact a social earthquake which, if taken up, would change the face of the world.  Now that sounds more like the teachings of Jesus!
It doesn’t mean that there won’t be unhappy consequences to those who dare to challenge accepted injustices but it does give a new meaning to being like Christ in our living. 

So, if we accept this approach of ridicule and non-violent resistance to injustice and oppression is what Jesus is asking of us, how might this interpretation of the Gospel message look for us today?
For a start the purpose is not to oppress or put down the other – always when we walk the path of Jesus the purpose is to bring understanding and transformation not just to the downtrodden but also to the oppressors, that there might be reconciliation and a new way of living for all.

This is a timely message for us as we seem to be seeing an increasing degree of overt government sanctioned injustice and inequality for the vulnerable in our world.  And I think that we are seeing some very Jesus like responses by people who do not choose engage in the bullying tactics but stand strong by peaceful and sometimes burlesque methods. One hopes there is a desire to reconcile as well.

Jesus looks for neither violence or helpless passivity: What are some of the ways we, in our daily life, can turn the other cheek in this Jesus like way – we hear stories of people gathering, peacefully but very intentionally against violence – like the events in Egypt where  Christians surrounded and protected their Muslim brothers and sisters at worship and Muslim men did the same to as Christians worshipped.

Jesus tells us to challenge oppressive systems: Where have we given the cloak away as well as the coat to make a stand for justice? What about those people who plan to swamp any proposed Muslim register in the states with their names to show the ludicrousness of such an unjust move.

Jesus encourages us to behave in unexpected ways: When have we walked the extra mile in order to challenge the status quo and possibly befuddled the system?  When people turn up with unconditional gifts to the prisoners where the prevailing attitude works on punishment by deprivation – that might be one.

Jesus word for us today is as true as it was then.  For he goes on to say that we are to live in love in everything we do – and this includes our enemies, those who cause us grief, not just because it is the ‘right’ thing to do but because by doing so we are taking action, shaking the foundations of all that is wrong and unjust.  We are standing up to those who would harm us using the most unexpected weapon of love. 
Living in the love of God, we become free in the Spirit to find imaginative and radically new way to challenge all that is evil.  Walking in the Third Way of Jesus we can only be amazed at the places it takes us and the hearts it transforms.  Thanks be to God.
Margaret Garland

[2] Rom. 12:17; 1 Thes. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 12 February 2017 Epiphany 6

Readings:  1 Corinthians 3:1-9,  Matthew 5:21-37

We pray:  Open us, guide us, teach us we pray O God that we may hear your truth and live in loving relationship with you and each other.  In Jesus name.  Amen
One Minister said to a group gathered to discuss the gospel for the coming Sunday: ‘What do you do when you are seem to be at odds with what Jesus has said – when you think it’s not the whole story, not compatible with your experience and understanding?’ What if the holes appear larger than the help?  It was today’s passage they had in front of them. 

I want to begin with a self-observation – how much harder it was for me to compile this sermon compared to the flowing narrative of last Sunday.  And that is probably because last week was a story, this a list of do’s and do not’s.  Both necessary in our lives and our faith but the difference for me is that stories transcend context, live longer, invite us in in a more seamless way.  The parables seem more timeless than the teachings of law.  The Gospel word for today is, at first glance, of the time.  Only men need to be warned about committing adultery – for they have the power to hurt and abuse the vulnerable.  There will be exceptions but as a rule…..
The teachings on divorce too are removed from our today experience, our world view but again we are looking at protection of the vulnerable of the time, how it is that the relatively powerful are to behave in relationship with those who they can easily hurt.  Interesting about the oaths – it is not linked to any particularly historical context and so we can more immediately link to the teaching today:  that those who embody the kingdom of God will speak truthfully, no underlining, oath taking required. Let your word be simply yes or no.  (I wonder what Jesus would make of the concept of ‘alternative facts’ as introduced to our language this last month).  

So we can ask, who are the vulnerable of today – how do we harm and abuse within family relationships, what are the rules today for protecting the innocent, taking care of the helpless, bringing justice to the down trodden.  We might talk of the focus on sexuality when instead it needs to be on faithfulness and covenant.  We might highlight bullying, emotional, physical, verbal within relationships or the exploitation of children, whether slave labour or children at the mercy of exploitative parents.
We might want to ask why our words of faith have come to embrace sexism, racism, ageism and all the other isms of the world.  When truth has become conditional and occasional and often quite selfish?
These are the questions and directions that Jesus might have put in the scripture if it was today – how is it that we are to encourage safe and compassionate relationships, protect the vulnerable, live in God’s way and truth today.

And then we come to the words of verses 21-26 - on how we are to come to the table.  We hear that we cannot bring our gifts to the table until we have reconciled with those who have something against us. It seems at first glance directly contradictory to the understanding that we come to the table to find forgiveness and reconciliation, from where we go out to do the same. Cart before the horse, we would say today. I mean it would be amazing if we could each gather round the table pure of heart and certain of goodness.  But to keep us away until we are would make for empty communion tables for sure.
Bishop John Robinson defined the practice of Holy Communion as ‘making holy that which is common’.  In other words we offer God the totality of our lives, darkness and light, and in return we are offered the presence of the living Christ, who works in and through us to make reconciliation possible.
But when we begin to concentrate on the fact that anger has the capacity to close all other communication channels, to tie our soul in knots, we begin to realise the need to put it aside as we approach the table.  For how can we hear the message of forgiveness and reconciliation if we are paralysed by anger for it destroys our relationship with God, let alone each other. 

So we find our way through these directions for living, understanding why they are there and realising that the question they were the answer for are still there for us today – maybe in a slightly different shape, but still as meaningful as kingdom actions.

On reflection, I think one of the stumbling blocks that I have wherever we have solid interpretation of the living out of the faith within the biblical canon is the knowledge that some take them as read, encase them in concrete for all time.  They choose or forget to ask the question of why they were needed and what that means for us, that ongoing (remember reformed and reforming) discernment of the purpose of God made known in Jesus for the people of God. 
They too can use them to ensure their own supremacy or agenda - politics in the world today would suggest that – or to exclude people from full participation as God’s people.  Just imagine if women had been fully partners in the church throughout time and the impact that would have had on the western world. 

And it is this manipulation we bring to God’s purpose that we have to be very aware of. The Psalmist talks about it – how learning to walk the path of right living with God is something we will need to work at and learn and grow in else we will go astray.  The metaphor of the school with willing pupils is a helpful one I believe.  Always we are questioning and learning.

In the Epistle reading too we see the trap that the Corinthians had fallen into – of thinking that various leaders had the superior wisdom and were therefore the true path to God.  Paul doesn’t say that they should reject all human teaching and interpretation of how we live in the way of Jesus but he does say that they need to forever be discerning God in those teachings, to be hearing what the Spirit of God is saying into each and every situation, to be continuously growing in our questioning and believing and living in faith.  And how do we know the Spirit is in this – to put it rather crudely ‘if Jesus was present, as Jesus is, then what would he embrace and what would he tell us to turn aside from.’ It is a question I constantly ask as I try to navigate the interpretations of faith that seem to have lost the ‘Jesus’ factor and sit rigidly in human certainty.

How is that we are to keep the teachings of Jesus forever fresh and meaningful for us today?
We remember that we do not know it all, there is never a time when we can simply abide by the rules but we are to be continually discussing, learning, growing from each other, with those who know much and those who would say they know nothing but in fact have a profound faith.
Look around – think of the people here who have been teachers for you, those whose journey with God had impacted on your journey, whose faithfulness gives you hope and whose gifts have been, and will be, light and salt for you.
The learning and growing never stops – the questions are always there, the understanding as to how we are to live as the people of God is found in community interpreting scripture in the power of the Spirit, and it is for each of us  to be alert to the truth that is Jesus Christ in this world today.
To finish some words of Michael Hudson on our journey with God:
The grace of God is like a road that draws the heart from its first home – We long to go, but we hate to leave, and the Spirit calls, “Come follow me.”
The voice of God is like the wind, it comes and goes and comes again – We read the signs in the bending trees, and the Sprit calls, “Come follow me.”
The love of God is like a stream; it fills and feeds our deepest dreams – It finds a thirst and leaves a spring, and the Spirit calls, “Come follow me.”
The peace of God is like a friend who sees us through the journey’s end – The road is long and the talk is sweet and the Spirit calls, “Come follow me.”

Margaret Garland

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Reflection from Cafe Church Sunday 5 February 2017 at Opoho Church

Bible Readings  
First Reading Isaiah 58: 6-12 various NRSV
Introduction:  The earlier verses of this chapter from Isaiah have God encouraging Isaiah to, in no uncertain terms, get their house in order.  God recognises their efforts to be humble, worshipful, seekers of truth, but also sees just how that evolves – into selfishness, quarrelling, oppression of the vulnerable and therefore, to God, they are rebellious hypocrites.  Then Isaiah paints a picture of what true relationship with God will mean in their, and our lives. Here is what God asks of us:


Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
….If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. 
          Reader: Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church
People: Thanks be to God

Gospel Reading  Matthew 5: 13-16  The Voice translation

13 You, beloved, are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes bland and loses its saltiness, can anything make it salty again? No. It is useless. It is tossed out, thrown away, or trampled.
14 And you, beloved, are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. 15 Similarly it would be silly to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illumines the entire house. 16 You are like that illuminating light. Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it.
Reader: This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ
People:  Praise to Christ the Word

The Listeners – adapted from an idea by Tom Gordon 'The Blessed' in Welcoming each wonder p.65

When Joyce Campbell walked to the lectern to read the Gospel lesson for that Sunday, her heart wasn’t in it.  It had been a busy week, and she hadn’t had her normal time to read it over and practice the difficult words if there were any – and she did want to do it well.  She was pleased to see there were no curly ones, in fact it was quite a familiar. 
But all the same she wasn’t sitting easy with it – she knew how important it was and felt she wasn’t up to scratch.
But anyway, here goes: ……Hear now the Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 5 beginning at verse 13: she began:
 ‘You are the salt of the earth;
That was all Jeannie sitting over in the corner heard.  All she saw was her Dad – the one who had guided her through so many difficult times, who was always there for her especially when her world turned upside down – as it frequently did.  But the times she loved best was sitting down chewing the fat – talking about stuff, big stuff, little stuff, and the way his faith added a certain flavour to how he saw the world.  Salt of the earth – yup that was him. She was surprised when it was time for the hymn.
but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
And that was where Joyce lost the Minister.  Well not so much lost as paused.  That conversation with Sam a couple of days ago – it was like he had completely given up, that he had no taste left for life let alone for his faith.  You couldn’t help but wonder if you could have done better, found a way through, lit the spark again – but hang on – you keep on doing this – God is in this, in Sam, holding, loving, patient, waiting…..  if the salt has lost its taste – I don’t think it’s lost in Sam ….why is everyone looking at me? Reading finished? Hymn to be announced? Ok…
 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 
That was Steve’s trigger.  He was part of the visioning group for the church – where to go, who to be, how to express our faith, to be missional, everyone had different words and ideas and they spent hours on the vision statement – it was all a jumble, a mess.  But those words – you are the light of the world, (what was that hymn) – I am the light of the world, you people come and follow me…..That’s it, simple, straightforward, to be the light of Christ in the world…
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 
Young Grace was getting a hard time at school – it wasn’t easy when people teased you about going to church, when they made fun of what they thought it was all about.  And you didn’t always have the words – and truth be told you were quite glad about that because silence and walking away was easier. But there was something that wouldn’t let her do that all the time – that kept her trying to reach out, to say what and why her faith was so important to her.  Yes that bit about not putting it under a bushel (whatever that was) – that helped, gave her courage! She would keep trying.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Jason almost made it through the reading – he really did.  But his mind wasn’t on the hymn that came next – he was too busy following a thought that came to him out of the blue – Why are we so good at saying we are no good at things.  Joan is just brilliant at encouraging and listening – but doesn’t feel she is good enough to pastoral carer,  Peter next to me – he can navigate the bible better than anyone I know – but won’t speak up in study groups in case he says the wrong thing – and actually the Rev has been at me to take a turn at doing the readings – maybe I should say I’ll give it a go – even though I’ll never be as good as Joyce…

And here ends the Gospel lesson says Joyce.  And when she walked back to her seat that Sunday, she knew her heart hadn’t been in it.  But then she wasn’t to know about the hearts of Jeannie and Steve and Jason and Grace – and the Minister too for that matter, was she?