Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 19 November 2017 Pentecost 24

Readings:  1 Thessalonians 5:1-11    Matthew 25:14-30

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 redeemer.  Amen. 

‘Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’[1]
Words of affirmation by Paul to the church in Thessalonica.  Words of confidence and encouragement to a congregation in need of some reassurance, perhaps tired, perhaps finding the time of waiting for the coming of Jesus difficult, perhaps uncertain about their future, perhaps tempted to wander off course enticed by that which they can touch and engage with in real time.
We don’t know exactly what was going on in this conversation of faith 2000 years ago but we can recognise some of the same issues that we face today as we too wait and live in that waiting.
Paul exudes confidence: of course you are prepared, he says to a wondering people, because you live in the light, the faith, the life of the resurrection.  Don’t be anxious – trust in the sustaining love of Jesus present within us and work out our preparedness in everyday acts of love and service.  Be patient and be awake for we know it will happen just not when.  Straightforward really.  And yet not.  If these people were struggling with uncertainty and anxiety for their future after just a generation distant from Jesus death and resurrection, how do we, 2000 years later, find certainty and hope in a time when it’s no longer about how we do faith but whether we bother at all.

Maybe it is even harder for us.  But I don’t think so.  Perhaps different in its context but not in the need.  For in the end there are times when we all need reassurance of our purpose, our pathway and Jesus offers the same answer then as now – that he is present now and working in us and through us to bring moments of the kingdom alive now and here.  That is the sustaining truth that Paul is expressing, is it not – that we are a people of the light, always prepared to exercise our gifts and our faith in our living and service to God and others. Living in a state of readiness – for we know not where and when we shall meet the living Christ. 

For all people, communities of faith, who wonder what difference they are making, who can feel lost, helpless among the overwhelming dreadfulness of life, who retreat into their shells of anxiety and fear, personal or corporate, perhaps a helpful analogy is to live as if we are everyday opening the gifts that we are to God and to each other.  Imagine that – a present every day, an anticipation of what the day might bring, a fresh Alleluia when we realise the depth of love that has gone into that gift for us, a careful or careless unwrapping so that we can get to the thing that makes us spend the rest of the day with a grin on our face, the repeated realisation that we are loved, valued and gifted by God. 
How we open it will be different for each of us – some in prayer, others in grounding ourselves in creation, others impatient to see what the day will bring – but the important thing is that we acknowledge the gift of Jesus Christ, light in our lives.

Then the question is ‘what shall we do with it today’?  How will we use the talents we are given, fresh every morning, to encourage each other, build each other up, to live in the light of love and service that is Jesus Christ here and now?

Gifts, talents, whatever we call them are a tricky thing.  Sometimes they abound with possibilities, fit with who we know ourselves to be and our confidences, other times they are perturbing, challenging, confounding. Not an unexpected tension when we consider the ways in which Jesus encouraged, confounded and challenged and perturbed.  It’s called living in the Gospel message is it? And confident or perturbed, it is incredibly important that we place Jesus at the centre of their use.  For a confident gift can easily turn into thinking you know best for everyone and the troubling gift can cause grief if we try to ignore it.

Time for a story: it’s a once upon a time story – a king and queen needing to leave their kingdom and entrusting the needs of their country to three people: outstanding exponents of the three most important values of justice, love and peace.  Having scoured the kingdom the three were found.  When the queen and king returned the three were called to make an account – sound familiar?  The woman of justice said she had spent her time asking for people of wealth to share with the poor and people with power to listen to the powerless.  Well done and continue in this way, she was told.  The woman of love told of looking for the lonely and the unloved to share her love, of warming cold hearts and freeing people from their hurts and angers.  She too was thanked and asked to go on loving – and the king and queen would support her in her work. 
Finally the man of peace came: perplexed and troubled.  For he had tried to guard the peace within him so when he heard angry voices, he turned away, when he saw quarrels he closed his eyes to keep his peace intact.  But it didn’t work for the anger and the quarrels penetrated his heart and his peace was lost – a deep sense of failure troubled him deeply.
And the Queen and King replied:   ‘So it will ever be.  Until you use your gift, it will be lost to you.’

A retelling of the parable of today that speaks all too clearly of the perils of shutting ourselves off from exercising our gifts as people of the way.

For gifts are to be shared are they not?  Held close for a little while perhaps but then shared in service and love. 
Sometimes we are not good at sharing – perhaps scared that our gift might be tarnished in some way or that others will ridicule it as too small or unimportant.  But then we remember: its God’s gift to us – valued and valuable and to be used in God’s service.

But here is another thing – not every gift is to our liking.  Not at first anyway.  Think on the gift of the Christ child – totally unexpected, couldn’t see how that would work, not the expected parcel at all.  But for those who trust in the wisdom of God, the baby Jesus was a revelation of hope and deliverance.   We might ponder the talent that we have been given, think it more suited to someone else, but then we remember: God works in ways we do not always understand, God knows us before we are born and sees possibilities in us that we do not see in ourselves – perhaps a little trust here would be useful!

Gifts are not to be envied or given a place on the status ladder.  Personal story here.  I have often regretted that I am not a competent singer or musician, but also been in awe of those who can stand up and sing and play before others.  I tried it once and completely froze.  I felt inadequate – less than whole – but then I realised that I had a skill that others were intimidated by and that was the ability to stand up and talk before others, both in this ministry role and my previous life as a librarian. I am also in awe of those who can arrange flowers, run a marathon, or build a house.  We can’t all do everything but we can stop envying other’s gifts and begin appreciating our own.

And so, people of God, are we aware of the talents we have been gifted, are we eager to use them the building of the kingdom, today and the time to come, and is the driving force for how we live our lives Jesus Christ, made new every morning? 

May we continue to encourage one another and build each other up in the faith so that we are the undeniable light of Christ for our time.  Blessed be God who has given to us Jesus Christ in our lives.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5: 11  NRSV

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 12 November 2017 Pentecost 23

Readings:  Wisdom of Solomon 6: 12 – 20    Matthew 25: 1-13

We pray:  Gracious God, give us ears to hear, minds to reflect and hearts to respond to your word for us today.  In Jesus name.  Amen,

Peace, remembrance and wisdom and foolishness.  Quite the cauldron of meaningful and yet quite contradictory concepts for our consideration today, none of which line up in any kind of obvious harmony. 

On the 11th  hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 all hostilities ceased on the western front – the beginning of the  end to the great war and all wars, they hoped.   We do remember all those caught up in the chaos, the willing, unwilling, the na├»ve, callous, passionate, implacable, deeply uncertain, or following orders – we do remember them.
But we live for peace – as Christians we stand up against violence and war and everyone pretty much understands the futility of war. But they still happen – whether it’s country against country or ideologies or ethnicities – wars continue.

And then there is wisdom and foolishness – probably everyone has a different interpretation of those words.  It is foolish to think that this government will make a difference
The only wise thing to do is to look after yourself.  She is wise to sell her house now.  He’s a fool, he doesn’t take anything seriously.

Today’s readings look at foolishness and wisdom – firstly from Song of Solomon where we meet Sophia, the personification of wisdom essentially being marketed to the people.  Seek and follow wisdom, easily recognisable by her radiance and faithfulness.  She is found in instruction and law, she is the path to God.
And then we have Jesus using the then as now turbulent and emotionally charged wedding scenario to explore the meaning of living in wisdom or foolishness as we wait to the end of the age.

Think back to those people in the early church – sure and certain that Jesus would come again in the near future, probably within their lifetime.  Soon to be realised anticipation was a focus and a reality in their lives in a way that it is not in ours.  And when they realised that perhaps the grooms arrival might be later than expected, the teaching turned rather more to how to wait expectantly and hopefully for what might be a longer time.  It changed the focus and challenges our understandings of what Christ asks of us as we wait – and I think that it is something that we as a church have struggled with throughout time. 

Because Jesus, in this parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (standing for us as members of the church), is wanting to make something quite clear.  He wants us a avoid assuming that we have enough in our lamps right now.  He challenges our assumption that it is enough to simply be here, that turning up with what we think is adequate oil for the lamp is as good as it gets and that only minor lamp trimming is required.

He’s trying to shock us into realising that rather than sitting and waiting, sure of our entrance credentials for when they are needed, this parable is about how we do our living in the time of not yet.  It is an important distinction.

And so the question for us is not about just believing that Christ will come again but how we live into that time as we wait. How we shine the light of Christ in the world now when it is desperately needed – for, as a commentator pointed out, there will be no need for lamps when the banquet (however that might look) begins.

What are the struggles then, for us?
One of them relates to back where we began the sermon, where something like violence (whether officially sanctioned or not) is still so pervasive in our world.  It requires of us a stand, a voice in the market place that wisdom so powerfully occupies in our first reading.  It demands of us that we offer radically peaceful alternatives to war, that we live in ways of peace and reconciliation, not just preach it.  It is not enough that we keep silent and wait.  And it is certainly not right that we justify God on our side as we beat the opposition to a pulp.  All those who in the name of ‘God on their side’ justify violence on the weak and the vulnerable may find that their oil has not only run out but what they had has turned putrid in the waiting.

I notice some thought is now being given to the correlation in the States between those carrying out these mass shootings and their histories of domestic violence – it seems there is a strong connection.  Are we surprised? Our continuing sometimes tacit acceptance of putting one part of our society onto the top of the status heap and the rest underfoot feeds directly into this kind of behaviour.  We have churches who practice exactly this kind of dominating behaviour – to women, to children, to the different, to other cultures or colours.  They are of the belief that not all human beings, in all our wonderful diversity, are equal before God. 

How we live into the time of not yet also had impact on the way we live as church community.  I think that over time the western Christian church has played around with the belief that an act of commitment is what is needed and then you are sorted for the end time.  That was a good part of what the reformation was about – a desire to put living in the way of Christ a priority rather than paying for entry into the kingdom. 
There is a sense also that people see the singular act of baptism as all that is needed rather than understanding that we renew our baptismal promise every day.  Or that church is an attendance habit well-formed over the years or a cultural imperative.  I do think that we see a great deal less of that these days – people who are part of the church family in NZ these days are here against the odds not because it is socially expected of them – but it is still a challenge to, in the midst of all else in our busy lives, give our focus to a life lived every day in faithful community.

And then there is the doing, the engaging with the present and the future in a useful and relevant way that honours the past yet is right for the needs of now – again we talked about this last week. 
Actually during the week I came across this brilliant cartoon in of all places a ‘Self Help Cookbook’ from the 1930’s. If you can’t read the words it is ‘Hat’s off to the past’ and ‘Coats off to the future’.  Says it all really.

The other thing that this week has given me serious food for thought is the way in which some of the world is getting to grips with just and ethical ways of living perhaps better that the church is.  If any of you get the Listener you might have seen in the current one the article titled ‘Greater Good’ which explored the growth in business’s that are intent on benefitting community rather than maximising profit.  They are taking off as people come up with ideas that tackle social, cultural or environmental issues, provide work for the marginalised and value justice and sustainability and equal opportunity.  I’m not saying we should suddenly go into business but where is that energy, whatever it might look like in our communities, that speaks of our commitment to shine the light of Christ into the needs of our world now.

It provides some challenging thoughts that we at Opoho will continue to explore and delight in.

I want to finish with words of hope from a rewriting of the 23rd Psalm for us for today by Thom Shuman. One of the psalms of wisdom.  It is a psalm that has sustained and comforted and encouraged for centuries – may it do so now for us.

Sinking in a sea of stress and success, you buoy me with your living waters until I am at peace;
running down endless corridors to never-ending meetings
you detour me to the pathways leading to your joy;
stumbling through the thorn bushes of a culture which seeks to tear my soul to shreds;
you prepare a picnic in the garden of grace;
famished and peckish from wandering the shadow of sin and death you fill me with sweet tasting hope;
fleeing the very life I convince myself I am seeking
you slow me down so goodness and mercy can catch up with me
and push me into your heart.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 5 November, 2017 Pentecost 22 All Saints.

Readings:  1 John 3:1-3,   Matthew 23:1-12

Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

This is the story as Gospel of Matthew tells it. 
When Jesus got to Jerusalem, after his triumphal entry into the holy city, he went to the temple, saw and dealt with the horror of the den of robbers and stayed to heal the blind and the lame.  He had a small verbal skirmish with the temple authorities before heading out to Bethany for the night and then the next day he was back in the temple.  He told barely veiled parables against the establishment: the wedding banquet, the wicked tenants, the work ethic of the two sons -  and had thrown back at him baited traps designed to expose him for the charlatan he was by the priests – paying taxes, resurrection marriage, the greatest commandment – and on it went.  And then, suddenly, Jesus has had enough!  Enough of the tricky questions and not so subtle put downs and the lack of understandings, enough of the attempts at point scoring around the intricacies of law by the Sadducees and Pharisees. Enough. 

Chapter 23 of Matthew could quite easily be described as a rant!  And today’s reading is the beginning of it.  See these teachers and lawyers – they may well preach and teach what is the father’s will but do they practice what they teach – no way!
They are vain, arrogant and hypocritical – they misuse their authority and need to be called out on it. 

The leaders of the synagogue in Jesus time were not alone in this dislocation of behaviour and teaching.  We can see it all around us now and throughout history.  Faithfulness to God stumbles and instead becomes self interest, comfort, and authority for its own sake.  The preachers, teachers at the temple in Jerusalem are expounding the doctrine and not hearing their own teaching. 

Pious and authoritative words convictions do not a faithful person make!  Delegating the living faithfully to others does not equate to being faithful. 
Faithfulness is in the orientation of one’s heart and life – to God.  And true faithfulness to God demands of us a form of radical egalitarianism that sees all people, despite our many inequalities of abilities, skill and status, as absolutely equal before God.  This quote from Richard Niebuhr says it beautifully: ‘God is the common centre, to which all humanity is related: it is by reference to and in respect of our relation to that creative centre that we are equal’.  That is what we do every time we gather round the table – one body unified and equal before God.

Where am I going with this? Well, it strikes me that this has some real challenges for us today – as we look at what it means to be the saints for our day, as we use our skills and capacities in God’s service and how that might look in our future as a church body here in Opoho.

One thing to recognise is that our failure to grasp faithful living in God’s way for all of us is not confined to church leadership alone.  While power lends itself to abuse, no less so in the church, it is the thinking that has grown out of the contemporary liberation and feminist theology that there equally can be a form of withdrawal from faithful action by those who consider themselves further down the pecking order.  Here the unwillingness to act or live faithfully is manifested in a denial of ability, of a belief that we have nothing to offer and so do not need to contribute.  Both pride and humility can equally encourage denial of human responsibility to live as God’s people.
I was walking down to church on Sunday pondering the phrase ‘All care and no responsibility’.  It’s quite commonly used in our world now – mostly to stave off any suggestions of culpability when things go wrong – but I would suggest it that for us it needs to be all care and all responsibility for all of us. 
Because aren’t we family – isn’t that our strength as the faithful here in Opoho and in the wider church – family that accepts responsibility to not just hear the word of God but to live it and in doing so to share the joy of Christ with positivity, action and enthusiasm. This church body will not survive without all of us actively being the hands, feet and heart of Christian living and action in whatever way we can.  We can’t leave the vibrancy of this heritage of faith we have received from the saints that have gone before resting on a few shoulders – it needs all of us to listen and to live out the teachings we hold as the basis of our faith.  And we all have something to offer – prayer, engagement, practical skills, time, energy, teaching, listening, pastoral, hospitality.  Not just occasionally but bursting out from the core of our faith – God within us.
Furthermore we are at a bit of a crunch time – at our Parish Council retreat it would be safe to say we were all a bit discombobulated by the news that our church building now has an A listing. We were prepared for having to make decisions based on bad news – do we give up on the building, do we spend all our reserves making fixes so we can stay – and suddenly that we have a different question in front of us.  Sure there are still questions and challenges about our building but let us concentrate on our living for today.  What does it look like for a faith community look like when our hearts and life are orientated towards God in faithful living.

Some thoughts – not to blame but to encourage, not to demand but to see opportunity.

How many of us deep down think that the only time we come alive as a church body is Sunday morning.  That worship not on Sunday and not in the format of Sunday is an optional extra.  That gathering and exploring and fellowship is best left to Sunday.  The doors remain closed the rest of the time.  How can we be alive during the week?  It doesn’t always have to be our energy or our time – but sometimes it does.

We have just had a working bee – fantastic turnout and much work done.  But guess what we didn’t get to the bit of garden that people walk by every day on Signal Hill Rd – two working bees a year are needed but so is a regular commitment throughout the year – and when that happens we see  when we look at the Farquharson frontage – thank you to those who do that but we need more people to join in.

Who among us has reviewed, wondered if our giving to the church can increase for this financial year?  Do we wait for the prodding or do we take responsibility for meeting the increase in costs that each year brings.

How do we turn to face the world, how do we not just build our faith but also serve the community we live in a way that is faithful to Jesus teachings – grab the reins of mission and run with it, knowing that it will demand all of those things we bring - prayer, engagement, practical skills, time, energy, teaching, listening, pastoral, hospitality. 

So for the people of God, the  commitment to the continuing of the journey of faith of those who have gone before into our future is the responsibility of us all.  It will look different, seem difficult at times but so it was for them. 

And here is the good news in which we put our trust and hope.  We heard the words of 1 John.
For those who have gone before and we walk in the way of Jesus as the children of God: that is what we are.  And as part of God’s creation we are not only held in love but also given renewing strength to be a faithful people in the midst of all that life throws at us.  God within us enables us to live in the example of Jesus despite our uncertainties and doubts and difficulties.  God within us allows us to live as Christ followers uncertain of the future but trusting in the promise that is a time of complete reconciliation, justice and peace before us.  Faithfulness demands of us that we work for the transformation of the world we live in now. 
We are the beloved of God and, as such, are the saints of body of Jesus in this place and this time.  Praise be to God for the faithfulness of the people of God in the time past, in our time and in the time to come. Amen.

Margaret Garland