Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Reformation Sunday: Opoho Presbyterian Church 29 October 2017

Readings: Matthew 22: 34-40,  Romans 1: 16-17, 1 Peter 2: 4-10

This year, Tuesday 31st of October, the evening before All Saints Day, (Halloween) marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the day he challenged the authority, teaching and practice of the church of his day with his attack on the selling indulgences guaranteed to reduce the suffering of your relatives in purgatory.

You may wonder how the Scripture readings relate to this story? And perhaps also the hymns, so in brief:

Romans and I Peter may be what we would expect on Reformation Sunday Luther’s breakthrough text – we are made right in the sight of God by trust / faith. The ideas in I Peter that everyone, not just clergy, are part of the religious leadership of the church, its priesthood and its mission.

Matthew is also relevant: the Reformation was about conflict where religion and politics came together in an explosive mix. The greatest commandments Jesus identified remind us:

1) - treating others as we would be treated, applies to how we do history as well as how we live in the present. Something we have been slow to learn.

2) – we worship God with our whole selves, both heart and mind. Luther held those together, the Calvinist tradition has been more comfortable with the philosophical, the legal and the theological than it has been with the aesthetic, the artistic, and the world of feelings. Individually this may be a matter of personality and gifts, but as a church we need both. I think Opoho does this well, but it is something to hang on to.

  • ·            Now Israel may say, and that truly – survival after war and conflict
  • ·         E te Atua - each in our own language, and learning from the language and faith of others: translation and interpretation continue
  • ·         A mighty stronghold is our God – trusting God in the midst of conflict.
  • ·         By Gracious Powers” – trusting God when you may well not survive.

The Reformation Story
Luther was not the first to question whether the church really had control over heaven. Socially, economically and politically it was a time of change. Forces of nationalism, the economic and political power of new cities and universities coupled with threats of Islam at the gates and memories of the black death, undermined old authorities. New ideas were in the air and the new technology of printing was the media revolution of the day.

The fresh appeal of learning called scholars back to the foundations of knowledge, including the scriptures in Greek, the teachings of the early church.

Luther was a superb publicist and printers made fortunes getting his writings and tracts and the wonderful and often wonderfully rude woodcut illustrations into print. His ideas spread to Northern Europe. His writings were smuggled into Scotland. Students soaked up his vivid condemnations of the old order. Business men, traders, and universities conspired. They were exciting and dangerous times.

In Switzerland in 1522, Ulrich Zwingli started the Reformation in Zurich by the simple act of encouraging the eating of sausages in Lent. In Paris, a young French lawyer and student of philosophy, John Calvin, was linked to anti-Catholic placards which appeared overnight on 17 October 1534, including one on the King’s bedroom door. in England Henry VIII had found it expedient to break with Rome for the messy business of a royal divorce, and the financial benefits of closing down monasteries and selling them off. However dodgy, the process encouraged forces for reform.

If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time in any of this your life was in danger. Calvin fled Paris and was called to support the Reform in Geneva. People like George Wishart in Scotland and Guido de Bres in Belgium (some of whose descendants still live in Dunedin) were martyred. Wishart’s friend John Knox was captured in St Andrews where he supported those who hung the Cardinal out his palace window in revenge for the death of Wishart. Knox spent two years as galley-slave before joining Calvin in Geneva and then taking the Reformation to Edinburgh in 1560. Before Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1559 her half-sister Mary persecuted Protestants and burnt Archbishop Cranmer and others at the stake. Many went into exile in Frankfurt and Geneva until it was safe to return un Elizabeth, though struggles continued about what sort of church England would have with Elizabeth as head. Would it be like Calvin’s Geneva? Would it still look Catholic? In Scotland could Presbyterianism have bishops or was that a door to control by the King and a step back to Catholicism?

Good out of chaos
For many the Reformation heralded the rediscovery of true Christianity after the dark ages of medieval corruption. Others knew that the past was not all bad, and the story is not so one-sided.
It is right that Protestants celebrate Luther and the Reformers for giving power to laypeople, encouraging the reading of the bible for ourselves, and articulating the faith that we are made right in the sight of God just by trusting our lives to God’s mercy.

Having the bible in their own language meant that Churches became places for sermons not just sacraments. Psalms were to be sung. New music was composed. Theology was reinvented and hotly contested. The discipline of new ways was imposed as the marks of the true church took shape not around its history but around its faithfulness to the bible read with fresh eyes.

The Reformation changed how we think about God, about work and about God’s purpose in everyday life; it changed ideas about sex and marriage as good gifts not a second best for those who lacked self-control; about the church being a fellowship where we engage with God’s word through Christ and the scriptures in our own language; a community which is not afraid of science, business and education, and one where it is possible to share in its responsible governance. All believers were priests in the household of God, all were like the stones in a building, living stones, like Christ, once rejected, but with Him, able to share in the purposes of God’s kingdom in this life and in the life to come.

We can still celebrate these things. They have not gone away in the different worlds we live in 500 years later. I am pleased to belong to a church where I can be married and be authorized to teach and to share the sacraments. One where I am expected to be responsible to my fellow elders and ministers, yet have freedom to think and to read and to pray and to share God’s message as I understand it.

There is another side
But there are other things which need to be said. Catholicism is still part of me, and it too is a place where I belong.

For centuries, Protestants identified the Church of Rome with the Anti-Christ in the Book of Revelation. It was a reading of the bible which made sense at the time, yet it does not stand in the longer run of history. God did not give up on that church. In the Reformation there were many Catholic leaders who sought to accommodate Luther’s teachings. Today, Pope Francis is recognized as a religious leader by Christians generally, including those who do not see themselves as Christians at all.

The Reformation was messy. Once the authority of the church to decide was rejected, everything had to be worked through afresh. And you cannot re-examine every teaching, every practice, every ritual, in just a year or two. The role of the church in society cannot be reinvented without reference to other sources of power. There is not actually some blueprint in the bible you can just plonk down in another time and space. In the conflicts of the day religious and political loyalties easily aligned making the political, economic and theological strands of conflicts impossible to disentangle. Protestants collected stories of Catholic atrocities, but there were Protestant atrocities as well. The memories of these were collected and cultivated well past their use-by date.
When Christianity came to New Zealand it came with a legacy of these debates and how they unfolded in European history.

Yet today relationships have become warm beyond recognition. This year Catholics and Lutherans and other Protestants around the world have shared together in services commemorating the Reformation era.

Generous and creative things have been said. Many issues have been worked through. We all recognize the priority of God’s grace over human effort; the temptations of mixing money and religion are no longer seen as peculiar to one tradition, and nor are the sins of the flesh. People want to face the future in a common faith. Scripture is valued by Catholics. Protestants acknowledge that tradition is part of helping us discern what God is saying to us. Although when Luther appealed to conscience and scripture it counted for little in Rome, but today an appeal conscience is today taken seriously in Catholic social and ethical teaching.

It has helped that people brought together by the Charismatic movement in the 1970s remained connected through the frameworks for a sustained spirituality provided by Ignatian Spirituality and the prayers of the Divine Office.

There is something precious here out of the dust of battles of long ago that we need to keep alive as we face new challenges about the environment, poverty, ethics, and the sincere difficulty many have recognizing that God really does exist in love for each and in all circumstances.

It can seem that for all practical purposes the Reformation is over. I am not sure:

In 2002 Yvonne Wilkie and I were in Rome as part of an archives conference. It was an unbelievable setting on the Janiculum hill overlooking St Peter’s Square, the ancient city down to the Tiber on our right. Below us the house of the Augustinian order where Martyn Luther had stayed in 1510. Above to the left above the façade of the basilica, enormous statues, including of St Peter with a huge key; its message of religious authority apparent to all.

By the time Luther left in 1511 his disillusionment with the church, its penitential practices for was growing. For us we could acknowledge the temptations of power and ritual and grandeur, but they were not our temptations, and there were other things about people’s faith which seemed to rise above it all.

Yet it could be confusing. Our archives conference coincided with the canonization of Josemaria Escrivá the formidable founder of the Catholic order, Opus Dei. Not all our Catholic colleagues were thrilled.

However unreliable, you may have learnt of Opus Dei through the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code.

Walking across St Peter’s square later when the crowds had gone, I picked up a service book dropped in the plaza. The singing had been magnificent, and I was interested to see what they had sung.
I was surprised to see Martin Luther’s A mighty fortress is our God. Like Luther, Escrivá emphasized how ordinary Christians should worship God in their work and daily lives. Perhaps that was a point of commonality. What astounded me was on the last page – it had a statement about the indulgence you would receive from having been there at the service.

Just when you might think the Reformation is over, it seems you come across something which makes you wonder what has changed?

What might we say?

1)                  Differences between Christians are not all resolved and new ones will arise in every generation. What we need to learn is how to handle them better.
2)                  Also, every generation sees the past differently. In 1917 for instance, Protestants saw the Reformation as about religious freedom, democracy, rational education and deliverance from superstition. Catholics then saw their response as about restoring discipline and equipping them to resist the forces of materialism, communism and modernity, as well as the injustices of the Protestant English and Scots in Ireland
3)                  Fortunately, in most places today neither Protestants or Catholics have political power over the other. Responsible scholarship is no longer partisan. There are differences to be explored and arguments to be had, but not battles to be won at any cost.
4)                  In every generation we need markers of Christian identity that make sense to us and to others. For both Catholic and Protestant then and now, Baptism and Communion, have been places of encounter with Christ and the love of God. They remain recognizable and important however they are explained. But there will also be markers of difference to be respected not deplored.

Each of us will have our own stories. Whatever they are, those stories matter; The symbols stories and rituals of faith we grew up with, remain part of our formation as people and as Christians.

John Roxborogh

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 8 October 2107 Pentecost 18

Readings:  Psalm 19, Isaiah 5: 1-7,  Matthew 21: 33-46

We pray:  O God open to us your word from scripture – may we hear your truth for us and take it into our hearts and minds, forever changed, forever challenged, forever encouraged.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

The parable of the wicked tenants. One of the more bloodthirsty parables of the Gospels, our reading for today is graphic in its challenge.  Innocent people killed and greed and power prevailing.  It has an obvious and pointed message – the prophets and then the son killed by the people who they wanted to restore into right relationship with God.  They didn’t want to know.  Like all the stories that Jesus tells, we are compelled to engage and dig deeper, and with this parable in particular all the more so as it is remarkably helpful for us as church today – this is not a story we can leave in the mists of a less enlightened time but one we need to bring right into the living rooms of today.

The analogy of the vineyard is not new in the scripture – and we have heard today the same imagery from Isaiah where we have a God who is perplexed and weeping over the destruction of his vineyard, of Israel.  A vineyard planted with all tenderness, nurtured with love, all the supports put in place, but despite the preparation and the care, the vineyard turns toxic - producing thorns and briars – ruin and destruction because of unfaithfulness. 
Jesus is drawing on this teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures as he paints a picture for the people of his time.   And we too need to put ourselves into the contemporary vineyard that is God’s place of welcome and provision in the 21st century.  And we find some unsettling moments when we do.

And so we begin to unpack the parable of the wicked tenants in our history and for today.
John Calvin, writing 500 years ago certainly saw the significance of this parable for his time – and identified two main points that a church of any time should consider:  one is that we are to expect rejection of the Gospel, rejection of Jesus not just from people outside the church but also from those within, from religious leaders who are given responsibility for making Jesus Christ know but who in fact completely reject the cornerstone of their church and go the wrong way.  Secondly Calvin reminds us that, whatever contrivances are mounted against the church from inside or from without, God will be victorious.

Let us think about the first of these propositions – that of rejection. And the first thing to define is what is being rejected.  The rejection is not in the end of the bible or a system of ideas or propositions inviting assent.  It is instead a rejection of the defining issue of our faith – a rejection of Jesus.  The tenants did not kill an idea, a principle or a system of doctrine, they killed the landowners son!  The gospel comes to us as a person. 

So how might we be rejecting the person of Christ, the cornerstone of our faith, today?
Of course we know well the attack on faith, any faith, from without - people especially swallow the persuasive words of those who aggressively and in the name of rationality reject any form of ‘greater than’.  Their books are on the best seller lists these days, in the airport bookshops, make the news online.  We don’t see nearly as much space given to the well thought out and engaging writings on faith or belief. They’re just boring unless they are extremist writings in which case they are either placed in with comedy on the shelves or labelled terrorist and, whichever way, usually the entire faith community is tarred with the same brush.  And then there is the other effective rejection -  the apathy, mockery, irrelevance, ears unable or unwilling to or not bothered to hear.

The attack from within, though, is much more insidious and dangerous.  For we trust those in leadership generally, and this parable is a timely reminder that it is so easy for us to be led (or lead) by the nose into paths that are completely at odds with the way Christ leads us.    
‘Let us kill him and get his inheritance’ takes on a dark meaning when we see the tenants in the light of leadership in the church today – money rules, hatred, violence, self praise.  But we are not like that are we? Oh yes.
I have a story that beggars belief but one that point us to the distance we can put between Jesus love for the world and the way in which so called Christian leaders have usurped that to their own understanding, killing the landowners son again and again and again.  Hear this and weep:
Written by an evangelical pastor in the U.S.:
Sitting at a dining room table full of fellow evangelical pastors, I asked how many were “carrying” (a euphemism for being armed with a concealed handgun). They all raised their hands. Then I asked, “What determines when you draw your gun and prepare to shoot another human being?” There was awkward body language and mumbling. After a few seconds passed, one older man said, “I’ll tell you what determines whether I draw the gun or not. It’s the man’s skin colour”.  And he went on to say black people don’t belong and are so much more dangerous for thinking they do – so I shoot ‘em.  Everyone around the table nodded in agreement.  The writer was unable to reconcile that he was one with them in faith but not, as he put it, in guns and race.  But I would challenge that – and say that their faith has gone toxic if it allows them to justify such attitudes in the name of Christ. By all that is holy, church leaders who act like this are not Christ followers.

Perhaps this story to us is just an anathema – too outside of our experience to begin to comprehend – but there will be things we are doing and attitudes we are living by that are also abhorrent to the one who is the cornerstone of our church.
Some thoughts (and I suspect you will have more):
Ø  Where preachers and leaders have made the rules of being church in direct conflict with the teachings of Jesus’ for example feed the hungry, look after the poor – then we are turning on our fruitful vineyard into desert. 
Ø  Where we are only concerned for self or denigrate those who think differently, we have lost sight of the complexities and rhythms and differing talents needed in the vineyard – then we are turning the nurturing soil into wasteland.
Ø  When we preach hatred and division, supremacism rather than equality and violence rather than peace – well then we have truly become the same as those wicked tenants – actively killing all that is right and good and loving and replacing them with our ideas of right inheritance – actually not so far from that story from the States after all.  Think the holocaust, slavery, subjugation of women, Soviet gulags, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, treatment of Maori in this country….

But before we get too down, let us remember that Jesus does not leave us in the depths of despair, nor does he allow that God gives up on us.  He reminds the leaders of the church of the day that those who choose their own way over the way of Jesus will fall, and that others will be found who will produce the fruits of the kingdom, who will follow the teachings of the person of Jesus, who will persevere, will be faithful because they see the purpose of the vineyard owner through the son who comes to reconcile and heal.

The cornerstone is secure, nothing will move it.  The attack on Jesus is ultimately fruitless – because, we are told,  nothing we can do will alter that fact that God has provided the vineyard that will bring forth fruit for the kingdom.  And those who think they can change the nature of that fruit to their own purpose will fail.   
God has prepared everything we need for fruitful living – planted a vineyard for us that offers us all we need and placed Jesus at the centre of it - it is for us to respond, welcoming and walking in the way of Jesus or rejecting him in false living and blind teaching.   
And only each of us can answer what our response will be – but please let us not be the tenant farmers, blind to the approaches of a God who loves us, nurtures us and delights in us, people who have lost sight of the one who gives us all that we could ever want or need. 

It seems right to finish with the words of the psalm, the words that remind us of God’s gift to us, the people of God.  The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul;  the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure, enduring for ever; the ordinances of God are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. 

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 October 2017 Pentecost 17 World Communion Sunday

Readings:  Philippians 2:1-13  Matthew 21:23-32

Jesus table manners based on a writing by John Bell[1]

We pray:  Loving God, we pray that we will hear your word for us today – that our ears, our hearts and minds would be open, hearing again your words of encouragement and anticipating new truths for us to explore.  Amen.
I often wonder if we realise just how radical Jesus was.  For the time he was seriously subversive, somewhat rude and definitely a thorn in the side of those who wanted people to behave decently and in good order. In the reading from Matthew he is speaking his mind – and in the way of great debaters, tangling his opponents with questions that have no obvious answer and stories that turn you back to front and upside down. And invariably, as we read in scripture, Jesus makes his final verbal thrust with clarity and precision.  No one could go away from that encounter in the temple without a very clear understanding of the point made.

And John Bell suggests that one of the places that Jesus was at his challenging best was around the table – which is a little surprising considering how we can see the table as a place of peace where all differences are put aside in the unity of Christ.   Let us see where John Bell takes us.  He begins with a table story of his own experience but I suspect many of us might well have our own example to recount:
First of all he speaks of three things that people in his home town of Kilmarnock referred to in muted tones – generally to keep the peace we suspect.  They were cancer, Catholics and women’s troubles.  And he recounts the story of a Mrs Dunlop who was particularly adept at random embarrassing asides– and she saved her best for anything Catholic.  The whispered ‘Did you know that she is descended from a Catholic great grandmother?’ as a women walked by.  So the day came when, with great trepidation, her grandson came to dinner with his fiancé –who happened to be Catholic.  And the extended family were on edge, hoping against hope that no inappropriate words would suddenly emerge from the Dunlop matriarch.  And all went well until, in the middle of a particularly stodgy rice pudding, apropos of nothing out came the words: ‘Well there is one thing I have always said about Catholics – they are good singers.’  Lousy timing, embarrassing moment, choking in the indigestible rice pudding.  And John Bell finishes the story by saying how like Jesus was this woman.

That brings us up short for a moment.  Because, says Bell, Jesus at a meal, inevitably said the right things at the wrong time.  At the least people were upset, and at best he created livid consternation.  Makes us think twice about speaking of the passive ‘unseen’ guest that Jesus is at table and I wonder too if it challenges our insistence on silence at we eat and drink the bread and wine of communion?  Be good to think about that sometime.

What were Jesus’ table manners really like?  In the gospel of Luke, says John Bell, there are ten different occasions of Jesus at table and every single one has an element of surprise at least. 
In Levi’s house he sat down to eat with tax-gathers and sinners – and he insults his critics by saying that perhaps they need his company more than those who are pickled in self-righteousness.
He insults Martha, the industrious housekeeper, by telling her to stop fussing about whether there is enough gravy in the stew and to sit down and listen to him.
He dines in the house of Simon the leper and disgusts his host by not only allowing a woman to wash his feet with her tears, but by telling Simon that the woman is showing him up when it comes to real hospitality.
He confounds the disciples in an upstairs room when, in the middle of a fellowship meal, he reveals an awkward truth - that one of the company is going to betray him.
Remember him being chastised by his distinguished Pharisee host for forgetting to wash the hands, and his reply ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate. But inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools…..’
Can you imagine the silence that would follow that outburst?
Makes Mrs Dunlop seem positively benign.  You can’t imaging the rotary club of the day inviting Jesus as the after dinner speaker can you?

But there is another point that Bell makes: that meals taken in the presence of Jesus are a blessing to some and a provocation to others.  Think of each of those examples. So what is Jesus trying to do.  Why so abrasive? 
John Bell suggest that it is really quite simple – that Jesus is exposing what no one else has noticed – that their obsession with detail, their prissiness about what is right is covering up the fraudulence of their existence, that in identifying the wrong in others was all about preventing others recognising what was wrong in them. 

His words: ‘But Jesus is not impressed by the outward display, be it piety or righteousness or good manners or perfect procedure, if that is at odds with an inner self which is emaciated, damaged or denied. 

And he suggests that when we come to sit around the Lord’s table, we are offered a fragment of bread and a sip of wine through which Jesus Christ in his fullness enters into us to deal with the dirt and the frustration and the yearning which too often our external lives disguise.  And in that same moment of sacrament God provides a specific moment and a specific means whereby we can be healed, forgiven, blessed and made new again.

And with John Bell I say to you:  around the table, Christ enters our soul – will we make room? Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Table Talk from States of Bliss and Yearning by John Bell, Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2008 p. 93-99