Saturday, 23 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24 September, 2017 Pentecost 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Garland

Friday, 15 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 17 September, 2017 Pentecost 15

Readings:  Genesis 50: 15-21, Romans 14:1- 4, 7 – 12, Matthew 18: 21-22


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.


In our very short excerpt from the Gospel reading today we have the beginning of another Peter/Jesus moment.  Peter speaks - thinking he is on the right track – and so he is because he recognises that we need to be much more generous in how many times we forgive someone who slights us.  But Jesus urges him to a greater understanding and responds with the parable of the unforgiving servant – the one where a slave comes before his king with an enormous debt –one that he could not hope to pay off in his lifetime and against all expectation and after some pleading his debt is forgiven.  Completely, utterly.  And then this forgiven soul, this person saved from being sold to pay debts, goes from his salvation to deny the same to one who is in debt to him.  He has his small time debtor thrown into prison, with no hint of mercy or understanding.


And Jesus suggests to Peter and to us, that as God forgives us completely and time and time again so too we should forgive and show mercy rather than judge – judgment, in the end belongs to God and God’s alone.


There is sweeping extravagance in this statement that doesn’t necessarily sit well with us.  Much of that has to do with our understanding of forgiveness, mistakenly feeling that to forgive is to condone or to forget or invite ongoing mistreatment.  That is a whole big discussion all by itself but today I would like to us to think about how our sense of who we are as beloved children of God impacts how we do relationship and therefore what we choose to take umbrage at in the first place.  I’m going to suggest that it is much easier to feel slighted by others than try to understand where they are coming from.  That we seem to have a culture of seeing different perspectives as a personal affront rather than a way of growing and learning. 

How can we instead create a way of living that invites truth telling without adversity- which in turn requires less in the way of forgiveness because we don’t feel wounded?  Now there is a big challenge.


Each of the readings from the lectionary today speak into this understanding of forgiveness in a different way.  Joseph, the young man betrayed by his brothers, sold off into slavery chooses, when his moment of potential retribution arrives, to say that there is no need for his pound of flesh, that although his brothers intended harm, he saw what happened as God’s plan for a greater good.  Now I am pretty sure that would not have been his thinking as he was bundled off into slavery but over time and in prayer he recognised that his forgiveness was a given well before his brothers asked for it.  He had worked out that it served no purpose, especially God’s, to exercise judgement on those who had harmed him and so he welcomed them with a truly open heart and welcome.  I wonder if the brothers learned from this in their interactions with others, unlike the servant in the parable.


Then from Romans we have Paul talking into a volatile situation – where a rather ‘self righteous’ group are saying that there is but one way to know God and it happens to be their way. They judge as wrong those who think differently and with that judgement comes a sense of superiority that then justifies them despising those with different views or approaches.

And Paul asks: who are we to put down those who God welcomes?  ‘Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.’[1] 

We stand or fall before God, not each other.  I’m not sure that this is completely understood in the church’s often very judgmental, exclusive approach to faith. Encouraging the people of God to follow the way of Jesus is just that – encouraging, discerning, listening, praying so that together we allow the Spirit to guide us in truth and love.  The way is not the noisiest pushing others off the path that they and not God have designed and operate the toll gate for!


There was a really good illustration of this in an online reading this week.  It was a blog re the election – the writer didn’t see how anyone who called themselves a Christian could possibly vote for Labour because they supported same sex marriage, abortion etc etc (ignoring the fact that the MPs had conscience votes by the way) – oh and the leader used the word comrade so she was a commie.  Then the replies came back – how could you not when National had done nothing about social justice, environment.  Into this maelstrom of oneupmanship came a voice of perspective – Malcolm Gordon – his words to the writer of the blog are to us all: A more useful approach might be to ask your Christian friends that might be voting Labour to help you see how their faith is leading them to do so.  It might garner more interesting responses with starting with increduility!”

It is not for us to judge the way in which others approach God or where they are at in their journey but rather to be in community with each other where respectfully hearing their story is as important as telling ours.  And when we want to challenge an approach not reacting in this adversarial way where words are spoken that need forgiveness but instead being good listeners as well as .


Instead there are other ways and a couple of conversations of this past week have got me thinking about this.


One is the way in which discussion and debate happens in the context of the marae – where the intent always is that each speaks their truth and that truth is respected if not agreed with.  In other words you don’t point score by dissing the other but by stating your position clearly and truthfully.  We could learn a lot from that form of sharing. I have listened to Rev Wayne Te Kaawa, ex moderator of Te Aka Puaho, the Maori Synod a couple of time speak into a wrong with integrity and respectfulness – to state the truth without insult, to challenge in a way that does not invite retaliation, to influence from his faith understanding without stepping on another’s.


The other is a research study that I have been involved in on Women in Ministry.  While there are a number of issues that arise from the respondents, one of the clearest is that the style of right and wrong, adversarial debate in our church meetings is an unhelpful and sometimes unsafe environment to speak into.  When we have majority voting that elates one side and sends the other into despair we are not being the church of Jesus Christ – we are being people who judge other people and seek to sort them out.  That is for God to do not us!


So today we have not so much addressed the issue of how to forgive and what forgiveness is but rather the way in which we use it as a weapon and a tool of judgement. 

As the beloved people of God how can we better understand that it is not just us who are welcomed (whoever ‘us’ might be) but all who turn to God.  When will we realise that it benefits no-one and certainly not God’s purpose in Jesus Christ for us as Christians to either create situations that require forgiveness or to withhold the power of forgiveness when we have been forgiven for all that we get wrong.  Are we unforgiving servants like the parable or does the power of God’s love transform us beyond ourselves into God’s purpose for the world – showing a new way to live together in love and respect and mercy, to forgive those who sin against us as God forgives us and to treat all whom we meet as God’s beloved children.  Amen.  So be it.


Margaret Garland

[1] Romans 14: 2

Monday, 11 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10 September, 2017

Readings:  Proverbs 8: 22-31  Revelation 22: 1-5

We pray:
May you speak into our hearts and minds today O God, guiding us in your way and encouraging us and strengthening us for the journey in Jesus name.  Amen.

Our readings for today are, we could say, the bookmarks between which we exist – the beginning of time when the expectations for a world deeply cared for by humankind were strong , and the final chapter where the revelation of the end time when Christ comes again is imagined.  Both are places of great exuberance and beauty, of peace and reconciliation, of surplus and healing.  And if we want to imagine what that might look like today hear these words by Rob Ferguson from a ‘A Springtime Carol’ that picture a world where that same creation has the freedom to be full of all it could be. 
Look around you, see the bursting, life is breaking out, the earth is full.
Yellow, purple, green refreshing, snow is melting fast upon the hills.
Hear the river waters chuckling, [the] blossoms blowing, [the] flowers glowing, [the] mountains shine!
Look around you, see the bursting, life is breaking out with love divine!
It is a powerful picture – creation at its most productive, beauty surrounding us, at one with nature and with God.  And that sense of love just bursting out, unable to be contained is so compelling.

It is the same sense of awesomeness when we hear the words of Sophia, Wisdom from the Proverbs reading – rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.  Sea, sky, land and all that inhabits it is blessed by God. 

I feel fortunate indeed to live in a land that enables me to imagine the possibility of that – to have an upbringing that includes communing with nature in that life defining way – to have children that understand it too – one of them wrote a poem about being down at a place we call ‘The Heads’ at the outflow of the Owaka River which I have in from of me in my office – it grounds me.
Celtic Christian spirituality understands that deep connection with the land – that we are intricately bound and earthed in the seasons and the dirt and the water that sustains us and that we are responsible for nurturing and caring for creation.  In Maori spirituality too is a deep understanding of being anchored in the land – it is who we have been, who we are and who we will walk into the future with.

And as Christians we are asked to have that same connection with God’s creation: we are asked to do more than simply experiencing this amazing world, we are asked to care for it, nurture it and sustain it for those who are yet to come. 

Yet we are pretty much doing the exact opposite – our planet is in pain, even in this slice of what was/is considered a veritable paradise.  Our rivers, our land, our skies, our flora and fauna, the ocean that surrounds us all full of chemicals and plastics and poisons that are killing it.
The world has fallen prey to a ‘don’t care’ attitude from the vast majority of our people.  Humankind no longer delight in this world but treat it as ours to exploit, trash, use in whatever way we desire.  When money is valued over environment, convenience over sustainability, the now over the longterm then the earth and all that is in it suffers.

Why is our Christian voice not shouting into this disaster?

Hear these words from Shirley Murray:

Where are the voices for the earth?
Where are the eyes to see her pain, wasted by our consuming path, weeping the tears of poisoned rain?

Sacred the soil that hugs the seed, sacred the silent fall of snow, sacred the world that God decreed [of] water and sun and river flow.

Where shall we run who break this code, where shall tomorrow’s children be, left with the ruined gifts of God, death for the creatures, land and sea?

We are the voices for the earth, we who will care enough to cry, cherish her beauty, clear her breath, live that our planet may not die.[1] 

This is a lament for our world; do we hear it?  You know if you read the book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Scriptures, as some of us have just done, you have this overwhelming sense of despair – of the people of God realising that they have got things so wrong that is appears there might be no way out this time.  Is that where we are at today? 
And even if we are not, if we still allow hope for better care of our earth, some don’t seem to grasp the urgency of it.  Our governments don’t – our retailers don’t, our consumers don’t, we don’t.  And in fact within the church some of us don’t actually see care for the environment as part of our Christian purpose.  Pope Francis has something to say to that:
"It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience."[2]

Wise words, challenging words that give us no wriggle room at all.

Where is the hope for saving of our world?  We are it – as Christians we walk alongside and sometimes in front of all those others who care deeply and passionately for this earth and its inhabitants.  It is essential that we recognise our close relationship with the land, with God’s creating presence  here on this planet and beyond - and that it has been given into our care, our responsibility until the end time.

Imagine this:  springs abounding with clean water, mountains piercing an unpolluted sky, earth and fields and soil without rubbish and chemicals and with time to rest, seas without plastic - once again safe for the creatures of the ocean, sustainable farming and ecologically responsible urbanites, landfills running out of business and air that is sweet.  This our prayer, and God grant that what we pray for we would work to bring about.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Words Shirley Murray from Faith Forever Singing  #75
[2] Pope Francis, Laudato si', §217.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 3 September, 2017 Pentecost 13

Readings:  Romans 12:9-21 Matthew 16:21-28

We pray:  Holy God, God among us, give us ears to hear and hearts to understand that which you gift to us today from scripture.  May we know your will for us and walk in your way we pray.  Amen

At the close of the first Harry Potter book, headmaster Albus Dumbledore awards the winning house points not to the heroes who battled dark forces, but to a loyal friend who tried to prevent them seeking danger.  Dumbledore recognised that the courage it takes to stand up to one’s friends can be greater than the courage needed to stand up to one’s enemies.  Here today we have a courageous Peter, just a few days ago named the rock on which the church would be founded, stepping in and confronting Jesus about his pessimistic view of his ministry to come, his obvious wrong direction, telling him that he would do everything he needed to do to protect Jesus from this litany of suffering about to befall him.  ‘Not if I have anything to do with it’, he proclaims loudly and proudly.
Unlike Neville of Potter fame, poor Peter didn’t get rewarded – quite the contrary - his confidence, his grasping of the mantle of leadership shot down in front of everyone:  ‘Get thee behind me Satan!  The most scorching rebuke of the entire Gospel tells Peter that he has got it seriously wrong!
The rock becomes the stumbling block - the church makes its first false steps.

What we have here are two different narratives for the way forward.  Peter’s way is one of keeping Jesus apart from that which will cause him pain and anguish, keeping him safe so he can do his work.  He is arguing that they can’t let Jesus go through the tears and sweat, the blood and muck of humanity because after all he is God and he needs to be kept apart from that gungy reality, kept pure shall we say.
Jesus’ way is one of diving right in, immersing himself in the suffering of the world – that is his work.  That is why he came, to be visible in a world that is a mess, a world that desperately needs the hope of his walking alongside them and knowing firsthand the reality of its pain.

And we can’t help but ask if that same divide of narrative is still alive and well in our church today.
Do people prefer to keep the church safe and slightly detached rather than ‘endure in love the mess of the visible church’[1]
It happens.  Developing this theme a little more we can see times and approaches in our history, and now, where this desire to keep God’s church pure and unsullied often seems to be a driving force of our faith –following Peter’s narrative in other words.

For instance would it be possible that in Catholicism the elevation of Mary, the mother of God to being immaculately conceived is an example of not allowing anything touching God to be seen ordinary, human? 
Is it true that for some, the doctrines expounded by both Luther and Calvin have in some way been seen as descending straight from heaven, in their own way immaculately conceived: a way of keeping us safe within their understandings.
Is there a sense where the elevation of the immaculate church of the elect has triumphed over the need to be involved in the mess of the visible church in the world?  Some would think so.
And then we can come a little bit closer to current times - there is the Biblicism of fundamentalism, seen in America for sure but also throughout the world and here, where select and particular interpretation of scripture has allowed the keeping out of the marginalised, the different, the messy.  You may have heard of the Nashville Statement that has come out of the States recently.  The Statement, says Brian McLaren who was responding to the document, encourages a way of reading the Bible,[2] ‘to justify slavery, anti-Semitism, the suppression of women, the rejection of good science and the slaughter of native peoples.’  It appears to be creating a pure and pristine ‘us’ unsullied by sexual weirdos and people with different coloured skins and deviant views – pushing the ‘dirty other’ to the margins.  McLaren however says the release of this Nashville Statement is actually a good thing – for it makes explicit what has for a long time been practiced but not said, and clearly shows which churches are not safe nor accepting.  It also encourages, in its extremism, those churches that are engaged in living the Jesus narrative to clearly state their case and open their doors even wider, to be the visible face of the Christ who engaged with the edges of society rather than a sealing himself off in citadel on a hill.
A quote from Jin S. Kim: Our concern is not first and foremost the purity of the church or the rightness of our doctrine but our willingness to follow Jesus into the world and onto the cross.[3]
So Peter was rightly rebuked, his narrative had to be rethought and he had to endure the ignominy of getting it badly wrong – ‘Get behind me Satan’ was required!  But interestingly, if we dig a bit deeper here, the verb that is used for ‘get behind me’ is the same verb used elsewhere for ‘follow’!  So, we ask, as well as a rebuke is this also a call to Peter to follow the path of Jesus and to leave his own worldly narrative behind?
On Thursday of last week I attended a seminar at Holy Cross in Mosgiel – where the subject was ‘The Spirituality of James K Baxter’ – a man who totally chose to walk away from the world’s narrative and enter that of Jesus.  And it was a fascinating journey into a complex and driven man who has contributed to our life in New Zealand in many ways but most especially in his exploration of indigenous spirituality in this country.  He saw Maori society as aligning much more naturally with the path of Jesus, particularly in the care of and engagement with the marginalised, prisoners, homeless, addicts, the broken and the bottom of heap as he saw them and as he himself had experienced both in the fallout from his family’s pacificism and his own alchoholism.  He talked about the five stones that David used to take down Goliath (a metaphor for today’s evil and corrupt ways of living – a anecdote from a person there who was a young nun at the time in the convent by Jerusalem – Baxter said she worshipped the wrong trinity – in her case school certificate, the dollar note and respectability – don’t mince words Hemi); these stones that were fundamental to living in the Christian path of communion with God, stones that he found easily as values within Maori Society.
They were:
Arohanui – the love of many – communion of all no matter who.
Manuhiritanga – hospitality – the welcome of friend and stranger and outcast, each of whom always brought a gift for you if you were open to receiving.
Korero – speaking truth without fear.  All are to be heard and no-one told that they had lesser voice than another.
Matewa – night life of the soul – the place of darkness, of void, unsafe but the place you most truly meet God.
Mahi – work by the members of the community on behalf of the community.  Not about employment but sourced in your love for the community
Baxter talked about the surprising voice from the margins, the truth found in the broken and despised, the need for community for all.
His God was a welcoming, muck and all God who found worth in all people and especially in the broken.  He would have had some things to say (and did) about churches and people of faith who tried to keep detached from the reality of life all around them. 

Baxter, for all his human frailties and failings and arrogances, definitely chose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus – to be the indiscriminate love of Jesus in this unquiet world wherever it takes us.  He chose the narrative of Jesus.

When we gather at the table, when we leave here today, as we sing our final hymn ‘will you come and follow me…’ can we remember that the mark of one who follows the way of Jesus is to live in the world that took Jesus to the cross, into all the messiness and pain which are our lives, so that we might know the power of love and truth and service in all of our community.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Jin S Kim in Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 4  p.24
[3] Jin S Kim in Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 4  p.24