Saturday, 29 July 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 30 July 2017 Pentecost 8

Readings:  Responsive Psalm 128, Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

A friend shared a childhood memory of Sunday School – of all those questions you were asked by the teacher and not being very sure of what the right answer was.   Was it a trick question, or testing your bible knowledge or how you should behave.  But the children over time realised something – if they answered Jesus for every question they would almost always gain a look of approval or at least of ‘you’re on the right track here’.
Do you remember that service here some time ago when Graeme was talking to the children and asking them what heaven was like and I think it was Sophia immediately said ‘heaven!’ and Graeme’s response was – well there goes the children’s talk done and dusted.

The kingdom of heaven is like: Jesus!

Sermon done and dusted!  No more need be said. 
Or does there?
These parables continue the teachings by Jesus about the world to come and our place in it as Christ followers. And they encourage us to look beyond our limited vision to see the immensity of God’s hope for the world.  In the first two, that of the mustard seed and the yeast, Jesus tells us that the difference between our living out the teachings of Jesus in our everyday life, in all its ordinariness and sometimes ugliness, and this extravagant image of a world made right with God is this spectacular growth explosion that love creates, that God speaks into.  And, amazing things can happen from the most unlikely sources.  Because, at the time, the yeast and the mustard seed were seen as unpleasant things, associated with death and scraggly choking weeds.

With the next two kingdom parables, Jesus is talking of the value of the Gospel being such that people will give up all they have to possess it.  At the same time, to us there is a hint of subterfuge and happenstance with the treasure and the pearl and we can struggle to relate to the imagery.

And then we happily read that the kingdom of God is like a full net of fish – abundance and sustenance – only to falter on the words that follow – some of the fish will turn out to be bad.

We do realise that the symbols used in Jesus’ parable were specifically tied to that time and have a different application to our world now.  The mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure in the field, the pearl, the fishing by hand with a net will all have their equivalents in our world today.  Trees that are considered to be weeds - maybe in Dunedin instead of the mustard, the sycamore?  So here are the questions – we will take some time to think about each one and if you come up with a suggestion by all means share it with us.
What produces today the abundance of the mustard seed but is commonly seen as something to be rooted out?
What is like leaven, disdained as corrupt, but actually an agent of God’s transforming power?
Like the person ploughing the field or the merchant searching for the pearl, what would we give up everything to possess?
For us what might we want to say the kingdom of heaven is?

We should look at the other words used here too – kingdom and heaven. 
Heaven – what does that mean for us today?  Not, I suspect, I hope, a little realm in the sky where we will all hopefully end our days in peace. I remember our asking the children in Amberley to paint or decorate the ceiling of our Sunday School room with what they thought heaven would look like.  Not that we ever got that far with it but there were dogs and toys and probably no parents….as you can imagine.
Nor is heaven a hope for the future with no meaning for us in the present.  A futuristic reward, a rest, having survived the ravages of this world.  I am pretty sure Jesus is not going down that track either.
In our secular culture it commonly means something that is perfect – often of the moment.  Oh, pure heaven – as we sip that first cup of tea or coffee in the morning. 
Here is a thought: heaven is where justice and shalom and compassion exist, where the Jesus way is followed and love is extravagantly increased.

Then there is kingdom – fantasy stories have kingdoms these days but not much else.  Simon introduced me to an alternative word that I have been considering a lot and I like it – commonwealth.  Just thing about it – common wealth. A place for the common good. For the people, of the people.

And it is a word that helps us think about what it is that Jesus is telling us here – not about a distant hope but a reality that is here and now.  How we strive for this …fantastic place of living where there is justice and peace and compassion – where the Jesus, who is the answer to the question, is living fully and completely in everyone we meet.
And we immediately strike a brick wall.  Not possible, human nature is too strong, we can’t make even a dent in the horror of this world. 
And this parable, these words and teachings of Jesus is telling us, actually yes we can.  That in faith we should be prepared to be amazed at what can grow and provide sanctuary, sustenance, treasure beyond belief.  He is telling us that the ordinary and indeed often slightly dodgy, occasionally smelly things of this world can, with faith and the grace of God, be beautiful and impactful for the kingdom.

But we still drag our feet, uncertain, unsure of our role in this, finding excuses for keeping heaven that safe distant future/place in the sky. 
One of the ordinary things we believe really isn’t enough is our faith – not confident, not enough, not effective.
No excuses: listen to this poem from Tom Gordon[1]:

It’s so small, this faith of mine,
too frail, too basic to be called a ‘faith’;
too unformed, too inadequate to make a difference;
but here it is; it’s all I have – even though it still looks so small, this faith of mine.

It’s so small, this commitment of mine,
too gentle, too diffident to have the name of ‘commitment’;
too uncertain, too incomplete to make a difference;
but here it is; it’s all I have – even if it sounds so small, this commitment of mine.

It’s so small, this passion of mine,
too weak, too tentative to have the label ‘passion’;
too unglamorous; too unsure to make a difference;
but here it is; it’s all I have –  even if it feels so small, this passion of mine.

Ok, but doesn’t the mustard seed grow into a fruitful bush?
And your tiny faith…..

And can’t the smallest shoot develop into a blossoming shrub?
And your smallness of commitment….?

And can’t the tiny bud burst into a glorious bloom?
And your little passion….?

So bring your little faith and see it bear fruit;
bring your little commitment and see it blossom;
bring your little passion and see it bloom.

Remember the mustard seed?
Even such smallness has potential.

The kingdom of heaven is like this – Jesus, us, love and faith!    Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] So Small by Tome Gordon in Welcoming Each Wonder Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2010 p. 214

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 16 July 2017 Pentecost 6 Baptism

Readings: Isaiah 55: 10-13, Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23, Psalm 65: 9-13

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

It is a very agrarian focus that we have in our readings for this week and I would like to add to it by reading the psalm for today – 65: verses 9-13 where the psalmist gives thanks for God’s bounty
You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. 
You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. 
You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. 
The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.

What a picture of beauty and abundance – evocative language painting a picture of overflowing goodness and bounty.  It reminds me of some of those works of art from a few centuries ago full of grazing sheep, serene shepherdesses and green pastures with nary a thistle to be seen.

The Isaiah reading too is a vision of hope to offer his people – reminding them of the abundant harvest that was to be found in following the word of God, and that nature itself would celebrate the amazing fruit that would come from the word.

One would be forgiven for being a little cynical at such a perfect picture – especially those who have anything at all to do with farming.  We recognise, especially this last week, the factors that are beyond our control like weather, the cycle of the good and the bad years, and our own propensity to make the wrong choices – we don’t get it right all of the time, that’s for sure.

Jesus lived in a time when agriculture, living with the land, was known to most people.  The sower of the seed would have been a common sight as would the knowledge of seasons and growth and failed harvests.  Someone who had recently been to Israel recounted how they seen that person out sowing seed – or as they put it flinging seed in all directions with not a thought to where it was going nor looking back to see where it had landed.

This is the imagery Jesus uses to encourage his disciples in their ministry at the beginning of their journey. 

And so we place ourselves into the story – seeking to understand Jesus word for us today and in this place, for our journey.

There are three distinct parts to this parable.  There is the role of the sower, there is the soil in which it is sown and there is the harvest that is yielded.

First of all the sower – the spreading of the good news.  I think that we could say that it is an example of extravagant sowing!  None of this carefully building up the soil before we sow, surrounding it by fences, doing everything we can do to make the soil so receptive that we can probably guarantee a decent harvest.  Instead we chuck the seed everywhere we can.  Some, quite a lot perhaps, will fall by the wayside but maybe that is not for us to know.  And certainly not for us to pre-judge.  We have no idea what lies under the top soil and whether the seed will flourish, this year, next year, never.  We don’t look back to evaluate our work – we keep on sowing.  It doesn’t fit so well into our present day approach really, certainly not in the business world and not in some of our churches – strategic plans, carefully assessed programmes, looking for a decent return on investment. 
The lesson for us here: that the gospel might be bigger than our expectations, bigger than just ‘good’ soil and that God’s vision for the world goes well beyond our planned enclosures and into the broken, barren, rocky places as well.

And so we come to the soil.  Good soil is the place where the seed takes root and grows, a context that offers nurturing and encouragement; that teaches understanding, attentiveness and perseverance.  Bad soil is where things like shallowness and blindness and distraction inhibit not just the seed sprouting but our growing in faith. We get that.
Maybe the point to make here is whether the soil we have so carefully prepared, eagerly anticipating a harvest that will fill our pews and grow our church, is providing a nurturing place for all who seek to grow.  And the answer has to be – not always, not everywhere. 
There are the stories of the most unlikely sprouting of seeds, the hard heart prised open by a word of kindness rather than judgement, the helplessness proffered in a time of grief, a conversation of listening, no words, cynicism falling to an act of vulnerability, an unlikely receptacle in an unlikely place proving to be open to God’s word.  How we as the body of Christ encourage, provide the soil in which those seeds of faith, ones that have emerged on the periphery of the church, can grow is a challenge to us today and it will only be met by having that same sense of anticipation that the sower has – that in so many different ways and unexpected places, and often against all odds, there is fruit to be grown and nurtured for God.  Maybe not now, maybe not in the way we would expect, but then our imaginations are nowhere near the possibilities that God can see. God just asks us to be the environment in which the seed can be nurtured to full maturity, however that might look.

And finally there is the fruit, the miraculous yield that is beyond our control – turning weeds into shelter, stumbling rocks into strong foundations, slick pathways into deep refreshing rivers.  And in many ways this is the biggest challenge of the parable – understanding that we can not anticipate or determine what impact our living as Christ followers will have but that we can believe that the harvest will be abundant.  

That is a big ask sometimes: for us to be that extravagant high risk sower of seed, indiscriminate, truly believing that every seed planted, all soil nurtured in the name of God has the potential to sprout and take root planted in God.  It will take us into circumstances that are not predictable, effort which is not obviously rewarded, fruit that we might not have encountered before.

But in the end if we believe in the power of God’s love, we have to believe that there is no place or circumstance in which God’s word cannot take root and produce fruit.  And that is a promise for us to receive and to sow. 

We pray: Abundant God, may we trust in your abiding love, walk confidently in the way of Jesus and know that spirit surrounds and guides us to new possibilities every day.  In the name of Jesus who showed us the way.  Amen.

Margaret Garland 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 9 July 2017 Pentecost 5

Readings:  Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Let us pray: Faithful and ever-loving God, may your word for us be embedded in our hearts and outpoured in our lives we pray.  Amen.

I have titled this sermon: ‘Are we an extravagant people for God?’ 
As I prepared the liturgy for today, I found it difficult to move on from the words of welcome, psalm and praise – I wanted stay in the groove of extravagant celebration, to immerse myself in the joy of God with us; the immensity of God’s love and purpose in this world.  Beautiful are you O God.  I wanted to rest awhile in the beauty and joy, in the praise of an abundant and loving God.  The sheer wonder of God with us kind of stopped me in my tracks.

We are, I suspect, in relative terms, a measured people.  We are uncomfortable with words like extravagance or passion, find it difficult to express over-the-top emotion and feel it we need to remain reasonably in control lest we make a fool of ourselves and embarrass others.  That will not be all of us but possibly enough of us to make it our expectation of proper behaviour, especially in church.

So what does it feel like when we read the superlatives, the passionate language of the Song of Songs.  Which some of us did a couple of months ago at our monthly bible book evening.  There was some squirming at the evocative wording. Why is it in the bible, we might even ask?  How many have read it through, not just the single lectionary appearance of 2:8-13?  Is it a single poem or a collection?  Is it about love between man and woman or Israel and God or Jesus and the church or the soul’s spiritual union with God?  Allegorical or literal? Sacred or profane?

This is a discussion for another time – today, reading it as Christ followers, it is helpful to see it through the lens of the church’s relationship with Jesus, our relationship with God through Jesus.  A passionate outpouring of what it means to love and be loved.

But whatever the lens, whoever is the lover and the loved, it is brim full of extravagance.  And if we read it as an allegorical tale of the relationship between God and humankind, it demands of us an enthusiasm, an excessiveness for our God, for being the body of Christ, that might not come naturally to a measured people.

Do we celebrate God?  It’s very easy to linger in the subdued reverence of a distant God, the darkness of confession, the hopelessness of an ugly world, the tiredness of traditions that no longer connect us with God.  For hundreds of years we have been suspicious of emotion, preferring instead to be a prudent, serious people of God.  In our music from early on emotion was looked upon with suspicion, in our traditional liturgy the language can be so formal as to disengage us.  We use the language of praise but sometimes it is so heavy if feels like a burden.

Have we turned the yoke of God, despite the words of promise to the contrary, to an encumbrance that is weighing us down, keeping us immobile? Too much ‘serious’ training as responsible adults has squeezed the capacity for joy and delight out of us?

Well, maybe it is time to redress the balance.  To use the language of celebration: that we are the beloved of God, that we are blessed and the world is blessed by the presence of God. 
No one does it better than Joy Cowley: Extravagant Praise.
 “We’ve been looking for a suitable word to praise you, God. Something enthusiastic but not too formal, the sort of happy shout a child gives to its mother.
We’ve tried Hallelujahs, Glorias and Hosannas, but really, what we’d like is a word from our own language, a word that is more us.
If we were a bellbird, we’d fill our throats with ecstatic song. 
Or, as a lamb, we could fling ourselves into spring dance.
As a child playing in the snow we would whoop with new delights.
As a mountain stream we would spill out inarticulate babblings of joy.
And if we were the sea, our waves would explode in a thunder of love for you
Lord, you overwhelm us with your great goodness.
Praise should not be difficult and yet we can’t find the exact word.  Perhaps it doesn’t exist, though if it does,
we’re sure that it sounds like ‘Yippee!’”

So how do we live under the yoke of Christ and see it as a reason for dancing and shouting yippee. 

I want to share a story from Friday night: I was at the folk club enjoying a wonderful night of music – and I wanted to be part of it.  I don’t sing well, don’t play an instrument, can tap my foot with the best of them but it wasn’t enough.  And I suddenly wanted to express my participation, my delight in the rhythm and the beauty of the music – and the thing that I really wanted to do is let my hands loose to dance the music. I sort of did but discreetly – maybe I should have made it more of a yippee moment!

Extravagant movement – once in Amberley we had a combined service with the Anglicans and it was decided that we would ask a woman who had been a professional dancer – with Limbs if any of you remember that – to interpret in the dance the psalm as it was read.  It was beautiful – an expression of both the word and her involvement in it.  Some people sat with eyes averted – dance in church?  I had to adjust my thinking too and I am so glad I was able to.    And I was part of a group that line-danced in church to a Christmas carol – mostly to support a young woman who felt inadequate at whatever she tried to do but this was her passion – and it felt beautiful for God.

But it is not just in words and movement that we might need to push the boundaries. 
Jesus said:  ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Extravagant rest!  In Jesus we are promised a peace and restoration unlike any other we might know – a giving up of our burdens to one who understands the power of love to both hold us safe and to free us from the tyranny of our burdens.  Do we trust in that promise of rest?  It seems to me that we don’t altogether embrace the concept of handing all our cares and burdens over to God.  We tend to keep some of them close, preferring the burden to be ours to carry and to deal with, the failure ours to live with.  The sense of incredible peace that comes from walking with Christ instead of separate from him, from knowing you are not alone in your struggle is beyond measure.  The presence of God in our lives makes the burdens light and the joy indescribable.  Nothing measured about that.

 For it is a light yoke, this taking on of love, this learning of the way of Jesus: we are offered the chance to step out from all that wearies and dismays us into a place of celebration and hope – that we can make a difference in a world full of pain, that we are beloved no matter what, that love will conquer death, that light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will never put it out.

For is that not the extravagant promise of the cross – that in the midst of the pain and suffering, love conquers all, love remains with us and love reconciles the world to God.  How else can we respond to the crucified and risen Christ than with extravagant love to him and to each other. Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 2 July 2017 Pentecost 4 Holy Communion

Readings:  Genesis 22:1-14  Matthew 10:40-42

Let us pray:  God of grace, be with us we pray as we listen, reflect and respond to your word for us.  May we be challenged and strengthened in the way of Jesus, to your great purpose. Amen.

The fire and the wood are here, says Isaac to his dad, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? His father couldn’t quite meet his eyes for he knew the answer. 
This is a difficult reading at first (and second) glance – just another example of the barbarity and violence of the Hebrew Scriptures would be a common response.  And as I wanted to concentrate rather more on the Gospel reading today, I wondered what, if any, connection, teaching we find in this Old Testament passage to the words of welcome and reward of the Matthew reading?
 And let’s not explain it away.  Far be it for me to decide that Abraham was responding to some self-concocted fantasy of God’s wishes or that it was of another age and therefore must be ignored.
A colleague commented that Abraham got an A+ for his test on obedience but we can imagine that he failed relationship 101 – Sarah – can you imagine when she heard, and Isaac – today he would have a counsellor at the very least and might not have been too keen on heading off again with his father into the wilderness.
Seriously though, what is it that we can learn from this reading?  One thing for me stands out quite strongly.  I hear a mature man of God being taught that, with God at his side, he could venture into the most unimaginably horrific scenarios and trust his God to be present and working in that moment.  I wonder if we all too often forget that God is in control here. So let us hold that thought as we explore the Gospel reading for today.

Three short verses from Matthew – 6 times we hear the word ‘welcome’ and 3 times ‘reward’.  Most translations use welcome, others ‘receive’, another ‘accept.’
I invite you to listen to the same verses as written in The Message bible – you may find this helpful:
 “We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”[1]


This creates some different thinking doesn’t it?   It challenges us to figure out what exactly is meant by welcome and reward for a start.

Welcome is one of those words that has been firmly drilled into us – we are to be a welcoming people, offer what we have and who we are to strangers.  But is this what Jesus means?  Well yes certainly.  But not the whole meaning.  Whether we are welcoming someone into our church or our family or our work place, our club, we are inviting them into our place.  A place where we know how things work and where we can be gracious in the midst of familiarity and relative control, on our terms so to speak. You could say that it is our hospitality and welcome that we are offering.  And sometimes we can get it very wrong –I’ve been to churches where no-one has talked to me, greeted me, engaged with me.  I’m sure we all have and that begs the question that maybe we have also been the people that, unintentionally, haven’t always welcomed well either.  
But not perhaps like this story of a theologian researching a book and, having gone to a Presbyterian church in Northern Ireland, was impressed by the team of two greeting strangers at the door.  They invited conversation, asked some questions and especially asked for first names.  But she quickly realised it wasn’t a desire to get to know you but rather an interview and if your name fell into the obvious categories of Catholic names, like Maria and Catherine and Patrick, they were told they were surely in the wrong place and were sent on their way.  Welcome – I don’t think so.  That is not what is meant by being welcomed or giving a cup of water to those who are thirsty
When Jesus speaks of welcome, he is asking more of us that even our very best practices - and offering more too.  Jesus is asking us to accept others in the same way he has welcomed us, in the name of God.  We are to greet the stranger not just with the welcome of hands and hearth but fully with the expansive extravagant hospitality of Jesus.  And that asks immeasurably more of us.  This might well mean that we are to be hospitable, welcoming, away from our place.  It means putting ourselves into other people’s places of need, not expecting them to come to us.  It means accepting it will be out of our control and firmly in the control and presence of God.  There is that Abraham link.

What might it mean for us?
I heard a story last week of someone who is engaging in conversation (mostly listening) with a hurting person who is on the very fringes of our traditional way of being church.  They believe in God but not much the church.  No way would they find their way to our door, or our homes.  They need us to go to them, to take Jesus welcome to them in a way that they feel safe – and that may well make us feel comparatively unsafe. 
We do have to remember, though, that practicing welcome in in Jesus name is definitely less predictable, more of an unknown than accepting people into our familiar spaces and practices - neither does it hold out any certainties.   Jesus speaks often of the tribulations of ministry.  But we also know that in every experience of care, of reaching out, of seeking to be people of the way of Christ, God’s grace continues to work long after we have gone, in those we meet and in ourselves.

This is a compassionate welcoming where it is needed – a hospitality that goes where it is needed.  More than that, it encourages the new, the unfamiliar and the unknown. It takes us new places. It opens up our world views and perspectives as well as our hearts and souls.  It’s a two way street.  So is this the reward that Jesus talks about – where, when we offer welcome in Jesus name, we too are deeply affected, we are both servants and served, we give and we receive.

So as we gather around the table this morning, we remember again that we are a people who are welcomed by Jesus in all our shapes and hues to share food together, to remember that as we are accepted and loved so we are to offer that to those we meet.  Then, as Eugene Peterson puts it, we are intimately linked with God’s purpose, we are living that love in the smallest act of giving or receiving and we are gifted as well as gifting in every encounter.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Matthew 10:40-42The Message (MSG)

Reflection Opoho Church Sunday 25 June, 2017 Pentecost 3 and Mid-winter Christmas

Readings:  Genesis 21: 8-21,  Matthew 10:26-31

Well, nativities surround us, and they are amazing with all the stories that they bring – of travels, of family traditions, of summer, and of the birth of the child in whom our hope is placed.  And it does feel kind of funny peculiar to those of us who have only ever known Christmas in the midst of the summer.  But perhaps placing the shepherds, angels, wise men, manger, new baby in the middle of winter may bring new insights to what can become a predictable story.  And isn’t it lovely to consider anew the birth of Jesus separate from the hype and pressure of December? 
For me there is an added poignancy because the memory of Easter is still so close.  Having time to consider the nativity in the shadow of the cross in this way brings a new perspective to our understanding of birth and death – not that we don’t understand the connection of cradle and cross every Christmas but somehow this allows it a bit more reality – for me anyway.  And then the reading today about Hagar and Ishmael brings an equally challenging perspective on what is the sometimes our all too familiar nativity story.  Another mother and son fleeing for their lives, seen as a threat but protected and blessed by God, the same God we worship. 
So often in this time of winter we are invited by the readings to grapple with the hard questions of how to live life as people of the way. One thing is for sure - we can no longer live as bystanders to the story of Jesus – it becomes our story too.  We are it.  Sure we are not alone but in the end we can no long be detached, we are an integral part of the story of grace and love that is the birthing of Jesus in this world. 
That, to me, is what the nativity brings to me today – not that Jesus was born, but how it is we respond to the gift of the new born, what if means for us to also be born into a world of pain and joy, love and compassion – what is it that we bring and share as we kneel in awe before the gift of God to us – the child born in the manger.
So listen to this story, called “The Giving” by Joy Cowley[1] and see ourselves in the

With such eagerness we carry out our gifts towards the place of the newborn King. We are like guests hurrying to a wedding, and I cannot help but note that my golden gift is as large and as finely wrapped as any I have seen.
 At a point in the road, not far from the stable, I am stopped by an angel who wants to know what I am carrying. She is tall, quite stern, a security guard, I suppose. It pleases me to tell her that the package contains the treasure of a lifetime to be given to the Holy One.

“Open it,” she says. “What?' Do you know how long it took me to wrap this? Or what the wrapping cost? If you're an angel, you'll already know the contents.”
 “Open the parcel,” she says, folding her arms and firmly straddling the path. I am reluctant but have no choice. Still, once the wrapping is removed, there are some fine treasures to display. I point them out to her. A lifetime of regular church attendance. Tithing for the poor. Hours spent visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved. A mountain of cakes baked for fundraising stalls. Letters to the newspaper on moral issues. Marches for peaces, for justice, for the right to live. No one could be ashamed of such gifts. They are indeed fit for a king.

There is no expression on the angels face. She looks at each in turn and says, “What else have you got?” “What do you mean – what else?” I am angry at her lack of enthusiasm. “Do you realise what sacrifice went into these?”
 “He does not need sacrifice,” she says. “Come now there must be another gift?” I hesitate. “Well yes there is. But what I have just shown you is my finest gold. The frankincense – if I can call it that – is quite ordinary, hardly fit for the occasion.”

“Let me see it.”   With some embarrassment, I take from my luggage a plainly wrapped parcel, hastily tied with gardening twine. It is clumsily put together and when I pull the string, the contents spill out over the path. Nothing spectacular. A sandcastle built with one of the children. A blackened saucepan from the birthday dinner that miraculously survived a small fire. A teddy bear and a small tractor found when making the big bed. Silly ghost stories told on the beach under a full moon. Patti at her first communion, wanting to know how Jesus got from her stomach into her heart. The holiday tent fell down. The pear tree we planted on the grave of the pet mouse.
The angel seemed interested. She looks closely at everything and smiles. Then she picks up four shoes and a bottle of fragrant oil. “What about these?” My embarrassment intensifies. “My husband and I - we – we massage each other's feet.” The angel puts them back. “Beautiful ,” she says. “All of it a beautiful   gift.” She stands tall again and looks at me with clear eyes that seem as deep as forever. “Now for the third package.” I shake my head. “I'm sorry, there is no third gift.”

“Everyone has myrrh to offer,” she says. “Not I, Myrrh is the bitter herb of death. It has not been part of my experience. You see, I have been extraordinarily lucky. I don't seem to have the problems that plague other poor souls. My life has been just one blessing after another.”
 “Myrrh is the herb of death – and resurrection,” said the angel. “it is necessary for Advent journey. Without it the stable is empty.” I don't understand what she's talking about. “Sorry,” I repeat. “Gold and frankincense, yes, but myrrh, no. Now will you please stand aside and let me pass?”

“Why don't we look?” says the angel, indicating my luggage. “All right then. Look!” I throw it open at her feet. “See? Not a drop of myrrh in sight!” “What's this?” she says. “What's what?” She is pointing to a half-hidden bundle wrapped in stained newspaper. “I don't know. I haven't seen it before. It must belong to somebody else.” But as I say it, my stomach clenches and my skin turns cold. “Open it,” says the angel. I step back, “No. I can't. It's not – not mine-“

“You know you must open it,” the angel insists, and her voice is soft. My hands shake as I pick up the package and begin the unwrapping. Yes, it is all there. I thought I had forgotten these things, or put them away forever, but no, they are present and as alive as ever. The childhood cries that went unheard. The playground taunts. The teacher who disliked me. The struggles and the rejections. The pain wells up as real now as it was then, and my vision begins becomes blurred. I want to put the parcel down.

“Please continue,” says the angel. I already know what will be in the next layer. The hurt of the child within the adult. Bereavements. Losses. Failures. Feelings of inadequacy. Criticisms I could not handle. Recurring nightmares. Unspoken fears. I'm crying now, and I can't go on. “How can you call this a gift!” I shout at the angel. “It's all so – so ugly!”

“No, no!” she says. “It is the unborn resurrection, and resurrection is the beauty of God!” the next layer is worse. It reveals all the hurts I have inflicted on others, from careless gossip to deliberate betrayals. There are angry words that could not be taken back, judgements that shut out people who did not share my beliefs or lifestyle. Arrogance. Intolerance. Condescension.

I sit down in the middle of the path. “Come,” said the angel. “There is only a little more.” But she is wrong. There is no more. The last layer of wrapping reveals nothing but darkness. Every part of my life has been surrendered and now there is simply a tomb, this emptiness. “You are very close,” the angel says. I don't reply for I am lost in the darkness. But wait! In the depth of the night, I discover a light that grows as I gaze at it.
 “What do you see?” the angel asks. The light is increasing and seems to be a living presence. My heart rises like a phoenix. “It's - it is – a star!” “The truth of myrrh,” said the angel. “Keep looking.” The light expands to fill my being with a beauty that is both as new and as old as eternity. How could I have not known this? I gaze in wonder, hushed with awe. For there, in the centre of all its brilliance, is the newborn Christ.

We'll have some space now in silence to stop and reflect on the story we have just heard. And then take an opportunity to have a look at the nativities that are shared around this church, and as you do, think on the gifts that you bring – the joy and the hurt, the doing and the receiving, the iced up parts and the in the end the light that you both know and bring in the name of Christ.  And we remember we bring to the one who sees all our gold, frankincense and myrrh – all of our good, bad and ugly and still loves us as we are, yet loves us too much to leave us that way.  Amen.

[1] The Giving by Joy Cowley from Home Grown Stories edited by Hugh Kempster, Auckland, Lifespring Resources for Ministry, 1996 p. 1

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 18 June, 2017 Pentecost 2

Readings:  Exodus 19:2-8a, Matthew 9:25 – 10:23

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.

Saturday afternoon, sun shining outside, sermon to be written before going out in the evening.  Blank! Procrastination. Still blank. Oh good - phone call! Oops long phone call.  Panic. Still blank.
Back to basics.  Question – for me this time. How has God’s word spoken in these scripture readings today?  What shouts out, what challenges, where do we find hope and assurance?

And two things come forward to think about – one is the gap between the vision of God as lived out by Jesus and the ability of the people who follow to live that vision.  And secondly, a troublesome concept, the fact that they were to speak and minister to their own, not look beyond.

Our readings for today are the stories, hundreds of years apart, of two peoples on the brink of new beginnings, called to a path of faith and action in the name of God.  The exodus of the Hebrew people and the commissioning of the disciples by Jesus.  The call of God is on all their lives and they are asked to go and share the good news, in the assurance that God is with them.  For the people in the Sinai the task was to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, to keep the covenant – ‘as the Lord has spoken so we will do’ was their reply.
The disciples too were being asked to not only proclaim the good news but to accompany that by healing, casting out demons, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers.  To remember that no distance is to great, no audience too sceptical, no disease too severe for Jesus.  All that he had done – they were to do.  
And while they may have been apprehensive, daunted even,  they were also ready for it – for they had captured his vision – the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few – the people were sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless.  So they were prepared to go share the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near in the person of Jesus.  
Jesus was confident of their being able to do this and I am sure that they would have been empowered by that and their understanding of the vision of the kingdom lived out in the life of Jesus so far. 
But then - more instructions follow – take no payment, no money, no backpack.  Do not tarry where there is no harvest but move on.  Poverty, no place to call home. That makes it harder.
Then to what may well have been the tipping point for many: you will be harassed, persecuted, flogged, betrayed, put to death – and in the end you will not necessarily succeed in your task.

You can almost see the vision slipping away - suddenly they are tipped from empowerment to inadequacy – to an enormous gulf between the mission of Christ and their ability to succeed in that mission. Being as bold as Jesus, attempting miracles, choosing poverty, persecution….
The initial euphoria fading fast – it’s simply too much to expect.  How could they possibly achieve even a part of what they were sent out to do? 
And I wonder if this is a pattern we can apply to ourselves – we are inspired by the vision of a world reconciled with God and each other yet we struggle to find our place in that world because the vision seems too large and too hard and too impossible.

Then there is the instruction to go to the houses of Jews only – no gentiles, no Samaritans.  And every instinct we have shouts out – that’s wrong.  And then every experience we have of scripture replies that we need to dig deeper to discover the wisdom and truth that we know is there.  And I find it in the understanding that before the people of God are able to share the good news in the world, we need to be strong in faith, able to know the strength of God in our lives, trust in the one who has confidence in us and be able to know and articulate what it is that we believe and therefore live it.
Imagine this as a conversation:
Hi how are you?
Great, good to see you – its been a while.
I know – hey, help me with something here.  I heard you go to that church up the hill.  I wouldn’t have thought you would subscribe to that mumbo jumbo – after all you are a pretty intelligent person – how can you possibly believe in this ‘God’ stuff?
Well….I just do!

We could all think of multiple occasions when we have been cornered or challenged in our beliefs, no less by our own selves.  Unless we talk and share and question with each other and with God, we can continue to be tongue tied, unable to share the vision we know in our hearts. And we don’t have to be experts with words – it is in our everyday living that we show our commitment to the coming of the kingdom – so don’t let us be hampered by our half heartedness and our inability to show the world the transforming power of Jesus.

So I don’t see this part of the passage as being exclusive but rather as a time of empowerment for the body of Christ so that we can then go out and share the good news – and, to bring us back round to too much being asked of us, we can then step beyond our limited vision and instead be grounded in the impossible vision of Jesus Christ – for the healing of the world, the sending out of the shepherds to the hapless flock, the ability to deal with hardship and possible failure – in the end our vision is not big enough.
The thing is, the more we step out beyond our expectations in faith, the more we see the impossible as possible, the more we explore scripture, talk, discuss, support and encourage each other and live our lives in the way of Christ,  the more we feel confident to share the good news in an authentic and transforming way. Maybe the lack of vision on my part as I began this sermon was a case in point, yes?

I want to take this thinking and apply it to a practical issue that is in front of us here in the Southern Presbytery.  Most of you know that I have become increasingly involved in roles within Presbytery and I have to say, at times I despair.  Not in the people who are stepping out in faith in so many ways, not in the many wonderful stories of hope and grace but in the habits and structures and processes that are literally bleeding us dry.

Buildings and money have become much too important. Power and control is causing division and siloed thinking in both the larger bodies and in congregations.  People sit on committees which take up all their energy and time.  Burnout, fear, isolation is taking its toll.  Leadership is hurt, congregations are hurt, Jesus weeps.
Our vision is I believe, too small.  We are immersed in the minutae and overwhelmed by the load – and so we find it difficult to live into the impossible possibilities that Jesus sends us out to.   The heart of mission has become subservient to our need to shore up our structures and habits and processes.

And yet as a good Presbyterian, I recognise that our polity is important, that our processes have purpose and a strong wisdom – but I can’t help feeling that they have somehow lost their way, gotten out of touch with the reality of being the people of God in this place.  We have to peel back the layers of time and interpretation and somehow find the values that fire our hearts and our passions in the name of Christ.

So are we up for making hard decisions about the buildings when they are draining the life out of the mission of the people that are the church?  Are we willing to live within our income and put our reserves where they are most needed?
Are we going to trust each other and care for each other, each one of us rather than leave it to the committees?  Are we going to stop hurting each other and begin healing instead?

Don’t get me wrong – we are being the body of Christ in this place, this region, all the time,  but oh we could be so much more if we but stepped out in faith into God’s vision – a reconciled and hope filled world where all people are loved and healed.

When Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion for them for they were harassed and helpless – let us make compassion our byword – for each other and all whom we encounter. For all are part of God’s story.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11 June 2017 Trinity Sunday Quarterly Communion

Readings:  Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians13:11-13, Matthew 28: 16-20

Let us pray:  Holy God, in the words of scripture we have heard your word for us – may we understand it in our hearts and live it in our daily lives we pray.  Amen. 

It is customary, I believe, for preachers on Trinity Sunday to struggle (or not) to provide an acceptable explanation for what we mean by the trinity, a subject which has kept the theologians of the church busy for eons!  I don’t do customary – but all the same I do want to share a story from Tom Gordon that might give insight in a back to front way –abridged somewhat – before we look at the scripture reading for today from the letters of Paul.
There was this man, this father in fact, who worked at a pretty hard, physical job and wasn’t always in the best frame of mind when he got home to answer the always difficult questions from his daughter, especially after he had eaten a big meal and the armchair was calling him.  Today it was ‘How does fire work, daddy?’  And he did what he swore he would never do – ‘not now darling – perhaps you could go and ask your mother.’ 
So the man – let’s call him Tom – closed his eyes and relaxed in front of the wee two barred electric fire and gradually drifted into a pleasant sleepy state – and as he did he pondered the question ‘how does the fire work?’  And he decided he really didn’t need to know.  All he knew was that it was working wonders on his weary body and tired mind.
And wasn’t the glow a sign of heat and warmth, and when he saw the light and felt the heat, didn’t that prove that the fire was working.  Wonderful thing fire.  The light, the unseen warmth, the hidden power making it happen.  Light, power, warmth. Power, warmth, light. Not one without the other, each part of the whole. And he drifted off to sleep.
‘How does the Trinity work?’ said the preacher on Sunday. A good question thought Tom as he struggled to not drift off to sleep – it was warm in the church after all – but for some reason he kept thinking about power, warmth, light…not one without the other, each a part of the whole, three in one and one in three.
And then he knew – if his daughter asked him that question again he knew what he would say – not to worry, just enjoy the fact that it works.  After all, he only knew what he knew and that was enough.

The verses at the end of the second letter to the Corinthians have been described as a rainbow appearing in the sky after a violent and overwhelming storm.  And stormy is a fair description of the tempestuous life of the church in Corinth at the time. There have been tears, recriminations, self-justifications as the battle for authority has raged between Paul and the alternative leaders of the church.  No punches are pulled. In Chapter 10 we hear him accused in absentia: ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’[1]  There is deep hurt, struggles at mediation to a congregation on the brink of imploding.  The sentence preceding the reading today is unequivocal: ‘so I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.’  Phew.  And then, after all this wrangling and division and somewhat threatening language, how come these rainbow words suddenly appear? 
‘Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.’[2]

They are a sudden change of direction, of tone.  You could say that Paul was giving up – can’t win this one, will say something nice and come back to fight another day? Or you might wonder if he has fallen back on easy benediction hoping that the whole conflict will sort itself in time? 

It could be that in the wording of the benediction there is a clue to the sudden change of approach.  This is the only time that Paul, in his habitual benediction at the end of his letters, uses more than the grace of Christ – here we find the grace of God, the love of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  Is this his final powerful push to reach the people of Corinth – he is offering the resources of the Trinity – determined to remind them of the depth of loving relationship that lies behind the grace of Christ.  So maybe this is not an abrupt finish – maybe instead it is a coup de grace – a stroke of grace.  Paul recognises that it is only in this understanding of relationship within the Godhead that we find the way to be in healthy relationship with each other.   How is that to be characterised?  Grace, love and communion.  Light, warmth, power.  How do we do that? 

First of all by self examination and self improvement?  Constantly being aware of how we live and the way it fills or not the teaching of Jesus.  Trying to do beter.  Is this the way of Christ, how might I have better responded or chosen?  It reminds me of a conversation at Assembly last year where a gentleman said that for all his language of men and always using the male pronoun, he really meant to include women as well.  And my response was to challenge him that conversation is not only about what is understood in the saying but also in the receiving and that if he saw that his words were causing a sense of exclusion, of hurt, could he still justify continuing to use them – shouldn’t he find a better way.

Paul then exhorts the people to listen to him, to hear the teachings of Christ and not to be led astray by those who would bring conflict and dispute.  To consider first and foremost that they are one in Christ and allow that there will be differences of approach within that.  But to do this they need to be in good relationship, not hurling accusations at each other.  As Father, Son and Spirit are different but one, so to should Christ’s body, the church be, not this broken, adversarial community arguing who has authority.  Christ has authority.

But then he moves into the crux of the matter.  ‘Be of one mind’ or ‘agree with one another’ and ‘live in peace’.  If we are to live as the grace of Christ living out the love of God in the communion of the Spirit then we are to be in a relationship of unity and oneness.  But here is where we get side-tracked, I believe. 

For some believe that means my way or no way.  Exactly what those alternative leaders in Corinth were doing.  Deciding that for them to be right others needed to be wrong. Hence the massive fracturing of the church throughout its life over scriptural interpretation and theological positions.
But if we understand oneness, agreement are about us belonging to Christ, living in relationship with the threefold God and reflecting that in our own community, it puts a whole different perspective on what it means to be a people of the way.  Then we are living in the light, warmth and power that is the triune God and all else will flow from that –unity, respect, energy focussed on the kingdom here and to come. 
It would be fair to say that where there is conflict, posturing, bickering within the church to the point where relationship is sacrificed, and reconciliation is seen as hopeless, then we no longer belong to Christ for we have given ourselves over to that which is not Christ.

Paul, in his closing words, finds the light, the hope in the midst of even this though.  We do not face being the community of Christ alone but in the grace of the risen Jesus, the love of a God who will not let us go, ever, and the communion, the communion of the Spirit who remains with us and in us making all things possible.

And so we come to the table, one in the presence of God, from all our walks of life and places of faith – we come to communion with each other and with our God in the name of the risen Christ.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] 2 Corinthians 10: 10
[2] 2 Corinthians 13: 11-12