Saturday, 26 August 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 27 August, 2017 Pentecost 11

Readings: Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16: 13-20

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.

In this past week, not for the first time, I have been contemplating the nature of community.  Aware as we are of the many different personalities and backgrounds and experiences of those we end up in community with, it begs the question of how we manage to maintain a togetherness that gets us through the ups and downs of close relationship.  And the truth is that sometimes we don’t and it doesn’t.
Sometimes the hurt is too much, the lack of attention too consistent, the division too high a wall to climb to the top of when you might not find anyone else there.  Other times the priorities you have change or, as we say, life moves on.
Communities that jell usually have a strong under pinning ethos – like the co-housing development in High Street focussing on sustainability and communal space – or an over-riding commonality of purpose like supporting the community you live in to support you.  It takes effort and enthusiasm and communication and even then it doesn’t take much to fracture the relationship, at least for some.
Good community allows for diversity but encourages common ground.  Community has to work hard to ensure no-one is intentionally ostracised and individuals have to work hard to grow and sustain community despite the odd hiccup. And to be effective community we need to help each other - generous at sharing our gifts but also at receiving the help of others, something we are not always good at.
Allow me a moment of nostalgia here: I was reminded of how a good rural community works the other day when I watched a video of cattle droving down in the Catlins – doesn’t happen so much these days of course – but there was a farmer and a neighbouring farmer, their horses and dogs moving cattle from Tahakopa down to Tautuku – helping each other, cars stopped and patient, cattle off the road on the beach where they could, greetings exchanged as they passed by……

In the readings for today we explore both what it means to be a strong community of faith and what the foundation of that community is.
In the letter to the Romans Paul is exhorting the Christian community to live out their faith in a way that reflects their baptism, their commitment to the way of Jesus and to recognise that holy living is in itself an act of worship to God. 
And the way he drives this home is by using the analogy of the body – made up of many parts, each of which needs the other to be effective.  Smell, touch, hearing, seeing, tasting, engine rooms and things they make work!
And why is he needing to paint this picture for them – because he is warning them against becoming too haughty, too proud, thinking themselves better than others.  For that only tears the community apart and rips up its foundations.  The rock on which the church is built becomes, as the hymn so wonderfully puts it, sinking sand.
It’s not the only thing, of course, that shakes our foundations but it is symptomatic of the dangers that Paul was aware people needed to be alert for in the new born church inRome.  Good community works when we remember why we are community.  And for us it is because of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of the living God.  He is the rock and it is his purpose that holds us close and demands a way of living that is not easily of this world.

As we have been going through the books of the bible, at this stage the Hebrew Scriptures, on Thursday nights there is one absolute that keep leaping out of the pages and that is what God continuously/repeatedly asks of us: to act justly, to care for the widows and orphans, the weak and the vulnerable, and to live in the way of love and reconciliation and mercy.   And time and time again the people of Israel turned their backs on caring for the community to which they belonged, the community that God had entrusted to them, and instead looked to their own desires and sense of importance and power.  It was this waywardness that God was constantly hauling them back from, redeeming them from the exile, the wilderness of self importance and self absorption. 
It’s what we do for each, how we act as community that stands witness for God’s love in our lives, the transforming power of Christ as our guide and light.  Not that we come to church or put Christian or Presbyterian in our census forms but how we live our lives as the community of faith.  We all have responsibility for caring for the body, for helping each other out, for caring for the needy (which includes each of us by the way), for the law of God is written on our hearts and we can do no other.

Remember those wonderful words, also from Jeremiah: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. …[1]  We can do no other.

We here in this community of faith, we need each other, we support each other, we miss each other when we are separated, we have our ups and downs but as long as the foundation on which we are built remains Jesus, Son of the Living God then we keep strong to our purpose as community – and that foundation is: to love God, to walk in the way of Jesus, to care for each other, to speak up for the downtrodden and shelter the homeless, to make Jesus Christ known in our living.  Our understanding of what it means to be Christian has to be constantly discerned so that we are not distracted by those things that draw us away from worshipping God in our living as well as our words. 

I think we have some big conversations coming up as a church and as this community.  And I think we here will participate well in those conversations because we do have a strong community.

As the public perception of church is leaning more and more to total rejection, as the world sees Christianity being used to promote bigotry and hatred and violence, we need to be outspoken in our tolerance and love and reconciliation.  We can no longer keep silent hoping it will go away or afraid of showing that there is a different way.

As traditional church as we know it – parish, full time minister, a building for Sunday mornings, an ‘open the doors and they flow in’ mentality – is squashed between mega churches and strapped funding, we are challenged to think about how today we best function as the body of Christ – do the clothes need changing?

What of the community of Christ in this place – what happens when we are faced with making decisions on our future – building, ministry, mission.  Will we have the courage to be bold and outward facing as God’s community of faith putting our focus and our resources into being the gloriously creative and trasnforming body of Jesus, working together with all our skills and perspectives, vulnerabilities and strengths to make Jesus Christ known.  And the answer is:  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Jeremiah 31:33

Friday, 18 August 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 20 August Pentecost 11

Readings:  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Matthew 15: 10-28

Let us pray:  Holy God, expansive challenging Creator, who knows us better that we know ourselves, open the word to us today so that our hearts are touched, our minds deeply engaged, our spirit full to overflowing.  In Jesus name.  Amen. 

What a rich gospel reading today.  Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus getting real with the authorities – again! Earthy crude language of bodily functions and sewers and crumbs for the Canaanite dogs.
Jesus standoffish interaction with the desperate woman is divisive from the get go: people interpret it as either being a remarkably ‘bad side of the bed’ day for Jesus or an exquisite grabbing of a teaching opportunity for tradition bound disciples.  Oh and then there is the woman herself, loud, thick skinned, bolshie (she is fighting for her daughter here), an outcast, an other!  It could be called a story of faith winning over bad manners.

But then there are the verses before this story – they were  an optional extra in the lectionary for today -  where Jesus clashes with the authorities again – this time about the things that defile.  And they may be helpful in providing some context to the problematic encounter of Jesus and the disciples with the woman of Tyre and Sidon.
In these earlier verses Jesus is responding to the criticism from the Pharisees and Scribes that that his people do not wash their hands before a meal thereby breaking the commandments of God.  Jesus is suggesting that it is much more important for them to be concerned about what comes out of the mouth rather than the cleanliness of what goes in.  And it is all offered in really quite basic language – what you eat does its business in the body and ends up in the sewer.  He talks of the blind leading the blind into the deepest pit, and suggests that this fixation with rules rather than relationship with God is the cause of the blindness.  He points out to his disciples, who again need some unpacking of the parable, that what comes out of the mouth is much more destructive to God than not washing your hands. For, he says, what you say comes from the heart and if the heart is judgmental, unforgiving, unloving then your words will be so too.  But if your heart is full of mercy and generous compassion, then you are following the way of God made known in Jesus. 

And this one of the central themes that the gospel of Matthew pursues: that Jesus desires mercy not sacrifice.  And he is arguing with the Pharisees and the scribes over just this.  They believe that by putting all their energy into living by the traditions they are fulfilling the commandments of God and Jesus comes along and suggests otherwise: that the ritual washing of the hands is of no matter when their mercy barometer is not even registering.  Where, he asks are their roots in God, their understanding of the heart of God for justice and compassion and mercy.

The Canaanite woman, surprisingly, seems to understand this better than the chosen people of Israel.  She sees that love and mercy crosses boundaries and is found in the wayward and the unexpected, not in the rules which, if she followed them, would prevent her from even speaking with Jesus.  And the disciples, even after having the parable explained by Jesus, are still behaving ritually/traditionally rather than from the heart.  Send her away!  Stop her shouting at us!
And that is when we see Jesus taking on the behaviour that he has just denounced by arguing that this desperate woman is outside of his brief. I don’t believe that he has suddenly seen the wisdom of the exclusiveness of Israel, but rather that he is showing the disciples and us the consequences of the two approaches.  Sticking with the rules of no engagement means walking away whereas responding to the cries for mercy is the path of faith.  Jesus enacts the parable he has just argued.

Mercy is the cornerstone! Without it all the rule following in the world will not suffice in God’s eyes.  
Rules in themselves do not engage our heart for God.  We see that being played out in the world’s stages every day, don’t we?  Distorted readings of what a faith is about: white supremacists in the States quoting God as their rationale, arrogant politicians encouraging violence and every ism there is as God’s will, religious terrorists claiming the right of holy war over the weak, the innocent, the different.  All of them quoting convenient rules from sacred scripture, none of them walking in the light of God.  The blind leading the blind to the bottom of the pit.  Suddenly there is an immediacy to those words, isn’t there?

Where the rules and traditions have no heart they take us to dark places.  This will not be the first time you have heard me say this – and certainly not the last.  
And it is not just the obviously evil places of killing and abusing and hatred – but also to places of apathy and lethargy and pessimism, of resting in the traditions and the rules because they have become our God.
Where have we paid more attention to washing hands than cleansing hearts?  When have we claimed religious tradition as an excuse to act far from the heart of Christ?
Ø  When we refuse to allow that the church is way more than a building.  Too often we define ourselves by the four walls and a roof where we meet on a Sunday – both to the exclusion of the rest of the week and to forgetting that it is the people, the people, the people who are the body of Christ.
Ø  When we decide our way is the only way – all others are wrong. Too often I meet people who will not accept you as a Christian if you don’t agree with their understanding of faith.  Energy is poured into correct doctrine rather than mercy, sacrificing all to prove that you are right!
Ø  When we fail to recognise and take down the fences we put up that exclude and intimidate. Language, culture, gender, generational, social, economic, fixed ideas, rules of who is in and who is out.
Ø  When we find it easier to judge than to engage. Generalisations and judgements of situations and people that we have not taken the time to listen to, because it might change how we think or might be uncomfortable. Judgement that allows us to exclude because to engage would ask something of us.   
Ø  Where have we paid more attention to washing hands than cleansing hearts?  When have we claimed religious tradition as an excuse to act far from the heart of Christ? Something to consider as we go into this week and our world outside our church walls.

Who is the Caananite woman in our lives that we are trying to send away?  And where are the times when we are needing to be that woman, persisting in faith in the face of obdurate traditions and rules seeking mercy.  In the end ‘purity and faithfulness are shown ultimately by how we the church speaks and lives out the radical hospitality and love of Christ ‘ wherever it is needed.

I want to conclude today with a psalm that I wrote recently which I have titled ‘On being Presbyterian’ which might add to the thoughts expressed today.

On being Presbyterian #1
Holy God, Steadfast Lover, Nonstop Creator, Son full of Grace, Spirit Friend
I love that we explore who you are with our own words and pictures– not using the same words from a prayer book each Sunday
Creating, Imagining, Loving, Forgiving, Transforming, Reforming God
I love that you are an ‘ing’ God, active in our world and us forever.  You explode out of the cages of those who try to keep you static in the past
Challenging, Radical, Subversive God
I love that you come at us as the cutting edge of love –shame that we hide in the bluntness of institutionalism
God of Expansive and Intimate Relationship
I love that you know me, that we chat and figure things out together yet you seek loving relationship with the whole world and throughout time.  Wow! Why do we think you belong to just us?
God who, in Jesus, sought out the different and the despairing, the diverse and the ‘disgusting’
I love that you welcome all with no entry criteria but love.  Yet in your name many are excluded.  How dare we?
God Revealed in Scripture and in life
I love that we are encouraged to know you in study, sharing, questioning, discerning.  Hard work sometimes but always a rich harvest
Holy Love.  Invasive Presence.  Determined Spirit.  Praise be to the God who loves us.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 6 August 2017 Pentecost 8

Readings:  Isaiah 55: 1-5     Matthew 14: 13-21

We pray: Abundant God, open our ears to hear all that you would have us hear, our hearts to be touched by all you would have us care for, our minds to be convinced of all that you teach us, that we might be the best we can for you and in you.  In Jesus name. Amen.
‘Where is the bread?’ the great crowd murmured.  It is a question we have to address today with the same hunger for the answer.

We have heard the story from the Gospel of Matthew of the miracle of the loaves and fishes – of the plenty being discovered out of the meagre.  It’s an important narrative to the early church – the only miracle story, in fact, included in all four gospels. It’s a straight forward telling – no sermon nor allegory – just action needed to meet the hunger of the crowd.  And for a crowd that was not looked for, that invaded Jesus alone time as he came to terms with the news of his cousin John’s beheading. I remember as a child at Sunday School hearing about the loaves and fishes and being fascinated about how it actually happened – but trusting that it did.  Today I am a lot more interested in where the bread is for today? 

A story of feeding from today – a minister recounted the day that they prepared for communion – there were regularly around 30 – 35 so they had the quantity down to a fine art.  And then, just after the service had started, outside the church a bus pulled up – and in trooped a further 50 people.  What to do – the elder whispered to the minister ‘should I go and get some more’ and the minister said – ‘no it will be fine, there will be enough’.  And there was – later it was discovered that everyone, without prompting broke each piece of bread into half so there was plenty for everyone.

This story is not about explaining the miracle away but rather suggesting that when we are all aware of those who might go hungry, we look to our surplus, which we invariably have, and share.  We still will have enough and others will do too.

For it is a sad thing that this world has enough food to feed the hungry, this country has enough money for basic health care, this community of Dunedin has enough nounce to live sustainably.  So why don’t we?  Maybe we can find some answers, some hope in this reading for today.

Those three today issues that bolted out of my mouth just then– the hungry of the world, the health services of this country and the sustainability of our earth are just a few examples among many that plague our world today and highlight the paucity of our generosity as economic and national powers, as community, and often as individuals.  In other words reflecting the disciples initial viewpoint that people find their own way rather than, as Jesus would have us do, explore the abundant possibilities of the loaves and fishes being shared.

I will be nailing some of my political colours to the mast no doubt – but actually I prefer to call them my Christian colours!

The distribution of food to the world’s starving is complex and many layered.  It involves politics, environmental catastrophes, racism, war, rotting piles of surplus and amazing acts of generosity and commitment from agencies and individuals.  It is about our attitude to food – waste, care of purchase, sustainability, packaging, content.  It is about the attitude of those who have bread noticing that there is a need surrounding them and they respond by sharing. Afifi a couple of weeks ago giving away her unsold market food, giving to the food bank with generosity and commitment, popping the spare carrots from your garden into the neighbour, helping with the redistribution of food within the city.  We can do much locally.  But we also need to voice loudly our concern that the predominant factor guiding the distribution (or not) of food to the world’s starving seems to be economic and political and often racially based rather than compassionate, loving and caring for all of humanity.  And so we pray for and work towards all people of the world knowing the sufficiency of Christ through our caring for each other and the sharing of our bread.

The health services of our country are a big issue at the moment – actually they have been for some time.  We can almost pinpoint the moment when in New Zealand we went from finding money to meet the need of basic health care to making health care fit the size of the financial pot allocated.  1980’s – am I right?  There have been two notable interviews in the past few days to illustrate the way in which money again is the defining factor rather than care for a basic standard of care for all.  One was the interview of John Campbell with Minister of Health, Jonathan Coleman on Dunedin DHB.  The Minister said that the Commissioner had worked to half the deficit in two years, – not in any  way, when asked, at the cost of patient care.  Quoting Coleman – “without that clear picture of financial stability, we cannot improve patient care.”  Again a complex issue I know and many opinions but doesn’t it seem that money is in charge here rather than humanity and at the cost of people’s lives. 
The other discussion was between an American Senator and a Canadian medical doctor who, in attempting to describe the diminishing access to health care of those who couldn’t afford private health insurance, likened it to her access to the Senate – over half an hour waiting to go through security whilst there was a second entry point with no line up whatsoever.  The doctor said:  Sometimes it’s not actually about the amount of resources you have but about how you organise people, that when you address wait times it should be for everyone, not just people who can afford to pay.’  I don’t know how it works here but I would have to guess that there would be times when those with health insurance would have a disproportionate access to basic health services at the cost of those without?  You can tell me later if I am wrong.
And so we pray for and work towards all people being equally valued not just in our health system but in every thing that is core to human dignity and care.

And the third on my list – caring for the world, living sustainably, even if we think just in this city.  What loaves and fishes are we able to bring out of our baskets to contribute to the hunger of the world for sustainable living?  What could we do better, where could we speak into situations to improve awareness, practice environmentally friendly actions?  What decisions do we make, even the littlest ones, that add to the burden of this world’s choking demise rather than lifting it.  This community of faith is very aware – but there is always more we can do ourselves and by speaking into situations.
And so we pray for and work towards creating a world that is cherished and nurtured for our children’s children and beyond. 

Where is the bread? the great crowd murmured.
The answer is surprising – or is it?  “We the church give them bread, bread for the soul, bread for the stomach, bread for sharing – just as we are fed, so too we feed others.  Just as we know the bread that sustains and the labour that satisfies and the love that delights, so too we share that generously and with faith into a world that is desperately hungry. 
As we gather around the table today, remembering Jesus, the living bread broken for the love of the world, Jesus the living wine poured out for the love of the world may we be disciples with eyes open to the possibilities of sharing what we have in the name of Jesus.  For miracles can and do happen when we follow in his way.  Amen.

Margaret Garland